Left and Right: Josh Fox, Memorial Day, 2008, stills from a color film, 91 minutes.

JOSH FOX IS A CREATURE of the theater world, but his Memorial Day (2008) is startlingly nontheatrical, employing a claustrophobic point of view, a jagged editing scheme, and a tendency to favor disjointed, grainy visuals over narrative cues. There are moments the central story comes to a screeching halt and the film pauses midstride, splintering into a collage of musical scores and out-of-focus color swirls. Clearly, Fox has been waiting for the opportunity to pick up a camera––he not only wore the hats of writer, director, and editor but also that of principal cinematographer for his debut.

The result is a waking nightmare—a thoroughly disturbing case study of man’s desire to prove he can destroy another. Seeing this world through the jerky, low-definition lens of a handheld movie camera (more of an urban Blair Witch Project than Cloverfield), Memorial Day opens to the drunken chaos of a holiday kegger in Ocean City, New Jersey. It’s a mosaic of nihilism, as men chug, women flirt, and carefree drunken banter devolves into sexual assaults and savage violence.

There’s a simple—and rather obvious—irony here, between the neon signs touting America’s greatness and the immature debauchery. But things grow far more complex (and thoughtful) when this same crew of Ocean City partiers (some played by members of Fox’s theater troupe, others brought into the project via Craigslist) transforms into a platoon of American troops operating a prison in Iraq that recalls Abu Ghraib.

As boorish men and women humiliate prisoners—putting bags over their heads, strapping them into excruciating positions, building human pyramids—Fox seems to rehearse the hackneyed point that Abu Ghraib said more about America than it did about the war in Iraq. And while one is tempted to dismiss it all as reductive, comparing out-of-control soldiers to sex offenders on spring break, there’s no mistaking the unease that sets in as we watch this pattern of giddy neglect, abuse, and disregard repeat.

There is something grating about the meandering, real-time structure of Memorial Day. It comes across as random, unfocused, at times drawn out—but perhaps that’s precisely the point. There’s no rhyme or reason to the actions of these young men and women, no preset evil agenda. Fox demands that we consider the uncomfortable possibility that these torturers have not simply taken things too far but are utterly disconnected from their dehumanizing acts, unaware that they’ve done anything wrong. That’s why, midrape and midtorture, they give the camera an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

Memorial Day screens at the IFC Center in New York beginning February 4. For more details click here.

S. James Snyder