The opening half-hour of Josh Fox's Memorial Day belongs on the list of astonishing cinematic party sequences. Fox's cast of neophytes and amateurs carouses at a popular spring-break resort, and unless they're the greatest unknown actors in America, they're actually hammered off their collective asses. Writer-director Fox weaves his camera among them, catching their woozy conversations in quick edits and smeary color, documenting the stages of being young and intoxicated: unfettered glee, incoherent cockiness, raw sexual impulse, hair-trigger rage, exhausted inertia, and cold, cold regret. As the movie's soundtrack alternates between ominous glitch-tronica and sentimental chamber music, the whole project begins to feel frighteningly real—like a beach-party movie crossed with The Blair Witch Project.
Unfortunately, Fox has higher aspirations than turning post-adolescent mating rituals into nightmarish tone poems. Memorial Day owes just as much to Medium Cool, Hearts And Minds, and Redacted as to Girls Gone Wild. After the first 30 minutes, the movie jumps from beachside motels to Iraq, where it follows the same party-happy men and women as they engage in midnight raids and prison-guard shenanigans. Much of the callous military macho that Fox depicts will seem familiar—too familiar—to anyone who watched the more nuanced Generation Kill, and much of the Abu Ghraib-like torture scenarios feel like corny re-enactments of testimony from Standard Operating Procedure. Most of the last hour of Memorial Day feels like a retread at least, and horribly exploitative at worst.
The most interesting wrinkle in the back two-thirds of Memorial Day has to do with gender. Standard Operating Procedure explored some of the difficulties facing co-ed troops, but Fox's dramatization brings the sexual tension to life, as boredom, flirtation, and braggadocio shade into improper behavior. Some of the conversations in the prison are as natural and well-observed as any of the party-chat in the first part of Memorial Day, and it aptly captures how young people behave in groups, even in uniform. But while the direct connection Fox makes between youthful arrogance and systemic abuse is a bold stroke, it's also a dead end, because it reduces all the complex give-and-take of the movie's first half-hour to a link in a heavy chain, implying that appalling behavior in someone's personal life connects to appalling behavior in public service. Meanwhile, throughout the last hour, Arab men with bags over their heads shuffle in the background, reduced to serving as exhibits in Fox's case. That's appalling, too.