• Casualties of War is a horrific true story- horrific even for a war film
  • It is shot in Thailand as a stand in for Vietnam
  • Michael J. Fox plays Eriksson (and does admirable work) and for just about the entire running time of the film he is pitted up against Sean Penn’s Meserve. Don Harvey plays Meserve’s prime stooge Clark. John C. Reilly (in his first of many archiveable films) plays Hatcher. Reilly must have been buddies with Penn because most of Reilly’s early roles (We’re No Angels, State of Grace) star Penn.
  • Early in the film there is a very fine long dissolve of Fox’s character on the subway as the story transports back to the war.
  • During an early action sequence, the camera actual tracks below the ground as Fox’s feet dangle in an open Vietcong tunnel.
  • There was a boom in the war genre after Oliver Stone’s Platoon in 1986. Full Metal Jacket was in 1987 (Casualties uses the same “this is for fighting, this is for fun” line which feels like a copy in 1989). De Palma even marries the helicopter noise with a ceiling fan in an early scene (certainly feels like Apocalypse Now). Michael J. Fox is Charlie Sheen from Platoon– he is brand new- “cherry”. Sean Penn is the Tom Berenger character- perhaps even more of a psychopath. This is the sensitive versus the sadistic. De Palma’s world is even darker than Oliver Stone (the two worked together on Scarface earlier in the decade – 1983)- in De Palma’s realm, there is no Willem Dafoe- good angel on the shoulder- character.

At the seven-minute mark there is a beautiful split diopter with Sean Penn foreground left. At the 17-minute mark (above) the Vietcong is escaping in the back left of the frame during another split- Fox in this shot is foreground right.

Brian De Palma is the auteur most associated with the split diopter (certainly Tarantino owes much to him- he uses them often)- and one of De Palma’s greatest uses of the technique is the split at the 23-minute mark of Casualties of War with Sean Penn in the foreground right shaving. De Palma uses every inch of the wide 2.39 : 1 aspect ratio for the shot. The four soldiers on the left are carefully staged on their half of the frame. Penn’s character is thirty (30) days out (meaning he can leave the war in 30 days) and he has lost his mind. He is performing a function (shaving) but there is no life behind his eyes (foreshadowing some pending doom)- truly a superior cinematic painting.

An orange dawn silhouette shot of the soldiers at the 34-minute mark that would make Denis Villeneuve proud.

  • Sean Penn is still not yet thirty years old here. He is leaning hard into his characters tics (chew in) and accent. It is not a bad performance but given the material it is not a great one either- it may have just been too much for Penn in 1989 (he would reteam with De Palma for a better performance in 1993 with Carlito’s Way). The sinister looking Don Harvey (a poor man’s Kevin Bacon) is well cast (he is evil as well in Eight Men Out the year before in 1988).
  • De Palma holds a slanted camera angle (and a long shot distance) from Fox’s point of view for an extended time during the appalling rape scene/incident.

Another split later as the Harvey character attacks the poor girl—Fox is foreground right.

  • At the 91-minute mark De Palma uses the whip pan, and then a point-of-view Giallo tracking shot as a hand extends from the camera to reveal a grenade.
  • The score from Ennio Morricone is not on the level of his work a few years prior with De Palma for The Untouchables (1987).
  • Recommend / Highly Recommend border