Nevertheless, there is sometimes evidence that Laws is punishing Ellis as a way of symbolically destroying repressed tendencies within himself. But this is less an outgrowth of Woodbine or the character’s dialogue than of how the film channels (deliberately, it seems) another classic of the genre, Claire Denis’s “Beau Travail,” a dreamy, voluptuous homoerotic French Foreign Legion drama that loosely retold. Herman Mellville’s short story Billy Budd, where the (almost certainly) closeted Master-at-arms John Claggart torments the title character for being charming, beautiful and desirable. As Ellis (whose last name is French!) dreams and fantasizes about sexual encounters with other recruits, Bratton and his cinematographer Lachlan Milne light the action in warm, high-contrast monochrome as if it took place in a fabulous nightclub (or a softcore movie), and there are many Denisian moments of furtive glances and long gazes at athletic physiques. When Laws inspects the interior of an empty rifle clip, he does so slowly and lasciviously with his index finger. Which is another way of saying that a certain current runs throughout the film, even when the script doesn’t make a point of exploiting it.
But what are we to make of the film’s second half, where Ellis comes together and not only survives boot camp, but helps others get through it? There are no outward signs that the filmmaker wants us to believe that the experience (much less Law’s role in it) was entirely beneficial, or that the Marines somehow “made a man out of” Ellis. But more than a hundred years of bootcamp movies that were almost exclusively about straight men and almost always ended triumphantly ensure that every time “The Inspection” reaches familiar milestone moments (such as the hero deciding not to quit, or taking his exam in uniform) we react to it unironically at first, even though everything we’ve seen Ellis go through up to that point calls for a nuanced response.
The film doesn’t seem quite sure how it should feel either. There are stretches (especially in the final episode) where “The Inspection” vacillates between criticizing the institution of the Marine Corps and wanting us to be thrilled that Ellis excelled despite the best efforts of others to drive him out or into an early grave . It’s an inversion of the famous Groucho Marx one-liner: he wants to belong to a club that doesn’t want anyone like him as a member, and gets his wish.
It’s not just a matter of Ellis proving he’s stronger than the worst people in his life, which is healthy; there’s something grimmer and more troubling going on underneath, and it’s hard to say how self-consciously the film is about that deeper, more ambivalent or ambiguous current. For all its attention to social and political and psychosexual conditioning mechanisms, “The Inspection” lacks clarity. It’s a beautiful, heartfelt confusion, made by someone with real film sense – and great collaborators, including editor Oriana Sodduthat starts and ends shots a little earlier or later than most editors would, a technique that gives every moment an element of surprise.