Memorial Day draws an explicit parallel between Spring Break-y Girls Gone Wildry and Abu Ghraib. As such, it’s simplistic and smug, but also intermittently enthralling — much like Michel Haneke’s widely reviled Funny Games. This film’s first half is set in Ocean City, Maryland, during Memorial Day Weekend. While strip mall signage and FM radio announcers proclaim the dutiful importance of remembering and thanking those who sacrificed their lives for freedom and country, the American youth on display are consumed only with politically apathetic debauchery. Populated by a cast that makes Cloverfield’s twentysomethings look like desirable cocktail-party company, Memorial Day features crude, drunken depravity: characters hook up, strip, beat up homosexuals and engage in general misogyny (“if a bitch don’t give good head, I don’t want her”), all of it publicly performed for director and cameraman Josh Fox’s shaky handheld. It’s morally deplorable, truly reprehensible; in one scene, consensual, heterosexual sex in the backseat of a moving van filled with onlookers quickly turns into rape. “She’s telling you to stop — fucking go deeper,” one (male) observer encourages as the girl weeps.
Then, without warning or transition, the characters are wearing fatigues and dog tags. They are in Iraq, and in the film’s second half Fox goes on to recreate the notorious imagery from the familiar Abu Ghraib photographs: naked and hooded prisoners, stacked or alone, sometimes on dog leashes or holding electrical wires. The committee-approved abuse in Ocean City becomes peer-sanctioned prisoner torture. If nothing else, Memorial Day’s Abu Ghraib recreations are far more effective than those from Errol Morris’ stodgy, shallow and self-consciously “artsy” Standard Operating Procedure, which dealt in self-parodying slo-mo. Thanks to the persuasive authenticity of his actors, each of who vividly humanize their characters, Fox’s film makes the Ghraib affair seem unsurprising — it was just another long weekend for the country’s wayward youth, instigated by a generational impulse to perform for the camera.
If only it were that simple! But what the film lacks in complexity it makes up for in moxie. Beyond dramatically depicting widespread national depravity, arguing a link between what goes on over here and over there, Memorial Day casts blame at the individual level. Though it holds the Bush administration culpable, as in a scene in which the soldiers review their latest interrogation-guidelines memo, the movie doesn’t excuse the soldiers themselves. For Fox, this isn’t about a couple of bad apples, either, but about a country that serves as a rotten apple orchard, from its (erstwhile!) commander-in-chief on down. Sometimes, the aggressive assholes abusing both women and substances over holiday weekends are the same people who don uniforms and represent America abroad. Though not anti-troop exactly, the film argues that not every soldier is a noble, freedom-fighting hero, and that the ubiquitous decree to Support The Troops is too broad and un-nuanced. Some troops don’t deserve our support, Fox suggests. The film might be obnoxiously overt in tone — and dragged out, as it takes more than 90 minutes to make a simple point — but it earns points for asserting a case not often voiced in the U.S., not even by the post-Vietnam Left. Memorial Day is at least provocative, if shallowly so.