At 25, after nearly a decade of living in homeless shelters and on the streets, Ellis French (Jeremy Pope) decides to make a change. He visits his mother (Gabrielle Union), a New Jersey corrections officer who had kicked him out of the house for being gay when he was 16, to collect his birth certificate, and enlists in the Marine Corps. It’s 2005, a few years into the post-9/11 forever wars and deep into the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” era.
Ellis’s decision seems both desperate and defiant. Joining up is an act of self-surrender and the beginning of a complicated process of self-creation. Recruits are greeted at basic training with the promise that they will be broken down completely. They are forbidden to use the first person when addressing superior officers and are subjected to systematic humiliation. The ordeal is supposed to outfit them with better, braver selves. “I hate recruits,” says Sgt. Laws (Bokeem Woodbine), the “gunny” in charge of their punishment. “But I love Marines.”
“The Inspection,” which follows Ellis through his training, is therefore in some respects a love story, and a love letter — ambivalent, unsentimental, but utterly sincere — to the Corps. Written and directed by Elegance Bratton, and based on his own experience, the film can hardly be said to sugarcoat military life. Bullying is integral to barracks culture, and sadism is Laws’s stock in trade.
Not that everyone is victimized to the same extent, or in the same way. Ellis encounters both casual and violent homophobia, including a vicious beating in a communal shower. Another recruit, Ismail (Eman Esfandi), is subjected to anti-Muslim bigotry. The cruelty can be hard to watch — and at times it seems like more than Ellis could possibly endure — but there is also tenderness, camaraderie and humor.
The Marine Corps, Ellis discovers, is an intensely homoerotic environment. This may seem like an obvious insight or an easy irony: all those male bodies in intimate proximity, involved in strenuous physical activity and ordered to bond. But Bratton, a photographer and documentary filmmaker directing his first scripted feature, is alert to the contradictory nuances of masculinity.
After one recruit is mailed a parcel of pornographic pictures — clipped from magazines and hidden in a Bible — Ellis is assigned night duty, which means he patrols the barracks while his comrades masturbate in their bunks. He also develops something of a crush on Rosales (Raúl Castillo), an officer who at times seems to reciprocate his affection. Rosales wears a fat wedding band, and is heard arguing furiously with his wife over the phone. Maybe he’s closeted or bisexual, but Bratton is less interested in labels than in the emotional texture of relationships that are based on explicit codes of conduct and lines of authority even as they are charged with longing, fear and lust.
Pope, who will soon be seen on Broadway playing the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat in “The Collaboration,” is a sensitive guide to this world of volatile manhood. Ellis is vulnerable, and often scared, but he is also someone who has survived in the world as a poor, gay, Black man, and is therefore tougher than Laws and the others might suspect. He has also learned to adapt to hard circumstances without surrendering his dignity or his honor, qualities that are proclaimed as central to the Marine Corps ethos.
In an interview with The New York Times a few years ago, Bratton described his life (and what became the screenplay for “The Inspection”) as “‘Full Metal Jacket’ meets ‘Moonlight.’” That sounds about right. “The Inspection” filters the brutal claustrophobia of Stanley Kubrick’s boot camp horror show through the piercing subjectivity of Barry Jenkins’s coming-of-age tone poem.
Bratton trusts the power of his own story, and the discipline of his excellent cast, to keep the movie clear of bombast or overstated uplift. A lesser artist might have contrived a tidier plot or affixed a more ringing lesson, but Bratton seems to be motivated less by didacticism than by curiosity.
The character of Laws is a perfect example. Any Marine gunnery sergeant in a movie — and no doubt some in the real world too — operates in the shadow of R. Lee Ermey in “Full Metal Jacket.” Laws has no doubt seen that movie, and Woodbine surely has too. But Laws isn’t just a martinet, or the avatar of a brutal institution. He’s a man doing a job, and also something of an enigma, a performer who keeps some essential part of himself in reserve. Woodbine lets you see that, but without winking or tipping his hand. Who is this guy, really? You can’t help but ask, even though he’ll never tell.
And who, in the end, is Ellis? That’s a complicated question too, though “The Inspection” itself is part of the answer. The metamorphosis that Bratton explores, and that Pope embodies — the way Ellis both changes and remains ever faithful to himself — is subtle, bittersweet and beautiful.
Rated R. The mouths on these Marines! Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes. In theaters.