15-year-old Tom (Freddie Cunliffe) is upset after his family move from London to a rural house in Devon, where he misses his friends. He lives with Dad (Ray Winstone), 18-year-old sister Jessie (Lara Belmont), and Mum (Tilda Swinton), who is in the late stages of pregnancy. Tom and Jessie are close to each other and everyone helps Mum during her pregnancy.
One night, Mum goes into labour and is driven to the hospital by Dad, accompanied by Tom and Jessie. The car crashes, but nobody is injured and a baby girl is born to much joy around the family. While coming home from shopping with Mum, Tom tells her he doesn't know anybody, but she assures him that he will make friends. When they arrive home, Tom enters the house through the backdoor and something catches his attention.
Tom confronts Jessie and asks about what he saw: Dad and Jessie, naked in a bathtub together. Jessie acts as if nothing happened, but he is definite about what he witnessed. The family go out to a bar and Jessie introduces Tom to her boyfriend Nick (Colin Farrell). The three go out to a beach and engage in awkward conversation. After returning home Tom tells Jessie he suspects her and dad's behaviour has been ongoing. Jessie neither confirms or denies this causing Tom to lash out in anger.
Later on, Dad tells Mum and Tom he is going for a run. Full of suspicion and armed with a video camera, Tom follows Dad and Jessie into an old war bunker on their ocean-side property to film them. Filming through a hole in the wall he witnesses Dad raping Jessie. Tom walks off and, devastated, throws the camera into the sea.
Tom accuses Jessie of being sick because of her actions with their father. Jessie lets him burn her breast with a lighter to make him feel better. Later she takes Tom on a trip to London to see her friend Carol (Aisling O'Sullivan) who attempts to seduce him at Jessie's behest, but stops when she walks in on them.
One night, Tom is woken up by Mum, who tells him there is a problem with the baby and they must go to the hospital. At the hospital, Dad and Jessie go home, leaving Tom with Mum and the baby. Tom decides to tell Mum what he saw but becomes scared. Mum takes Tom to see the baby, who is bleeding. He tells Mum never to let Dad near the baby. Before she can respond, he leaves.
When Tom returns home, Dad tells him that Mum called from the hospital and told him what Tom had said to her. While Dad confronts him, Jessie begins crying. Dad asks Tom why he would lie to the family, but Tom says he is telling the truth. Dad demands to know why he said such horrible things about him. Jessie sobs at the table, while Dad shouts at and hits Tom for trying to break up the family. Dad then leaves.
Tom and Jessie lie next to each other and Jessie thanks him for standing up to Dad. Tom and Jessie enter Dad's room after he returns. He continues to deny his behaviour and claims Tom is making things up because he misses London and is unhappy, and threatens to send him into care.
While in mid-speech Tom stabs him in the stomach with a kitchen knife. Dad screams in pain on the floor, Tom and Jessie watch him dying then Tom runs from the house to go to the bunker. Jessie follows him there to comfort him silently. Tom asks what they will do now to no response then walks over and closes the door to the bunker.Ray Winstone as Dad
Tilda Swinton as Mum
Lara Belmont as Jessie
Freddie Cunliffe as Tom
Colin Farrell as Nick
Aisling O'Sullivan as Carol
Kate Ashfield as Lucy
Kim Wall as Barman
Annabelle Apsion as Nurse
The War Zone was given a limited theatrical release in 12 cinemas in the United States and earned $254,441.
The War Zone received mainly positive reviews and has a score of 84% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 31 reviews with an average rating of 7.4 out of 10. The film also has a score of 68 out of 100 based on 21 critics on Metacritic indicating "Generally favorable reviews".
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film four out of four stars and wrote "Unsurprisingly, 'The War Zone' affects viewers much more powerfully than a simple morality tale might. It is not simply about the evil of incest, but about its dynamic, about the way it does play upon guilt and shame, and address old and secret wounds. Roth is one of the best actors now working, and with this movie he reveals himself as a director of surprising gifts. I cannot imagine 'The War Zone' being better directed by anyone else, even though Ingmar Bergman and Ken Loach come to mind. Roth and his actors, and Stuart's screenplay, understand these people and their situation down to the final nuance, and are willing to let silence, timing and visuals reveal what dialogue would cheapen. Not many movies bring you to a dead halt of sorrow and empathy. This one does."
Emanuel Levy wrote in Variety that "Unlike most actors-turned-directors, Roth doesn't commit the mistake of letting his cast indulge in big, theatrical scenes with long monologues and mega-close-ups. Under his guidance, Seamus McGarvey's luminous camera observes the family from the right distance – neither too close nor too detached – allowing viewers to watch and make up their own minds about the tangled web of relationships. As discerning as Roth's helming is, pic's overall impact largely depends on its superb ensemble and perfect casting. Special kudos go to newcomers Cunliffe and Belmont, who, despite a lack of acting experience, render multi-shaded performances that always ring true. Winstone is terrifyingly explosive as Dad. In a quiet role that's a departure from her previous work, Swinton shines as Mum, a woman so preoccupied with her baby that she's unaware of the crises tearing apart her family. Boasting first-rate production values and resplendent from first frame to last, "The War Zone" is a gem of a movie."
James Berardinelli wrote "The War Zone is a devastating motion picture; it's the kind of movie that stuns an audience so absolutely that they remain paralyzed in their seats through the end credits. In his handling of the material, Roth shows more ability than many accomplished, veteran filmmakers. He paints Devon as a grim, rainy place where darkness and grayness are always enroaching upon the light. Roth deals with the story in a way that does not insult the viewer's intelligence. There is much ambiguity to be found here."
The film was nominated for the following awards: