Civil War review: "There's no shortage of horrors in this uncompromising drama"

Civil War (2024)
(Image: © A24/Entertainment)

GamesRadar+ Verdict

There’s no shortage of horrors in an uncompromising hypothetical drama whose copious thrills come steeped in moral and ethical complexity.

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"You never know what’s coming around the next corner!" veteran newsman Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) cautions novice photographer Jessie (Priscilla’s Cailee Spaeny) in writer/director Alex Garland’s Civil War. It’s advice worth heeding as they – together with veteran photojournalist Lee (Kirsten Dunst) and cavalier reporter Joel (Wagner Moura) – take an arduous and perilous journey through a future America in brutal conflict with itself. 

Yet Sammy’s words also serve as an admonition from Garland to the disunited States of today: a land whose partisan politics and entrenched ideological positions might indeed spawn a nightmare scenario akin to the one his film envisions.

What Lee and Joel are after is one final interview with – and picture of – their nation’s despotic president (Nick Offerman) before his imminent violent overthrow. Standing between them and their goal are some 800 miles of treacherous terrain, ruled by militias who have come to regard their kind as duplicitous enemy combatants. 

A palpable sense of dread pervades the story as its central quartet plot a course towards Washington through an apocalyptic landscape of burning buildings, abandoned cars and downed military choppers. Yet Garland also conveys the giddy rush his protagonists get from the visceral warfare they witness en route – a guilty exhilaration we also derive from the adrenaline-inducing carnage.

The whys and wherefores of how the titular war erupted are left intentionally, and rather frustratingly, vague. Mindful perhaps of exacerbating existing societal tensions, Garland imagines an alliance between red state Texas and left-leaning California that would be inconceivable in reality, even with a murderous tyrant like Offerman as their mutual bête noire. 

Taken as speculative fantasy, however, Civil War is never less than vividly, chillingly authentic. Small wonder Dunst’s Lee spends so much of it looking haunted, for all the brisk and flinty professionalism she presents to her colleagues.

The maternal feelings Lee reluctantly comes to have for Spaeny’s greenhorn allow a few shafts of humanity to emerge from behind Civil War’s prevailing bleakness. For the most part, though, this is a grim, gritty and gruelling thriller you endure as much as enjoy. There is no debating the technical prowess and artistry Garland brings to his depiction of a world turned on its axis. After two hours of implacable internecine hostilities, however, it’s a world we’re all too ready to leave.

Civil War is in US theaters and UK cinemas on April 12. 

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Freelance Writer

Neil Smith is a freelance film critic who has written for several publications, including Total Film. His bylines can be found at the BBC, Film 4 Independent, Uncut Magazine, SFX Magazine, Heat Magazine, Popcorn, and more.