After their parents are killed, Tuvia and Zus concoct a revenge scheme, and brutally retaliate for the deaths of their parents. When word comes that both of their wives (and in the case of Zus, his child) have been sent to the death camps, they are at odds with what they think they should be doing: saving lives or exacting countless acts of revenge-fueled violence. Tuvia and Asael stay with the group of refugees, building a make-shift community, creating laws, and trying to establish some sort of society, made up of men, women, and children, old, and young, healthy and sick. Zus leaves the group to fight with the Russian resistance. Friendship and romance blossoms in the forest for both Tuvia and Asael, while Zus gets his hands dirty with potentially duplicitous Russian soldiers while carrying out bloody raids on Nazi strongholds. DEFIANCE is, if nothing else, a riveting action film; the set-pieces are beautifully staged and handled by an expert technical crew. But unlike so many other attempts by Hollywood to combine human drama with the demands of the action genre, DEFIANCE remains true to what is most important – the lives and outcomes of the many people that the Bielski’s saved. By the end of the war, it has been stated that they saved over 1,200 Jews from being murdered.
As with any Zwick production, the film looks amazing. Eduardo Serra’s cinematography is lush and poetic while also having a gritty quality that really makes you feel like you’re trudging through the cold, damp forest with the group. It’s some of the best work of the year. There are many action scenes, some big, some small, all handled in a simple, coherent fashion. One scene in particular has an impressionistic tone to its violence which was extremely stylish. James Newton Howard’s score is terrific, pumping up the entire film without falling into the typical bombast that other films of this ilk tend to do. The tight, economical editing by Steven Rosenblum keeps this over-two-hour-film moving at a brisk but unhurried pace. And all of the performances are solid. Craig is all steely reserve while Schreiber gets to play into the inherent machismo of Zus. And Bell brings a tender quality to Asael; he might be the youngest of the three brothers but he’s certainly not at any disadvantages. Zwick does an excellent job with his direction, even if he can’t help but have Tuvia riding a white horse in a few scenes, a little too boldly exclaiming that the man was a savior. And a few of the lines in the script Zwick co-wrote with Clayton Frohman are a bit wooden. But that doesn’t keep DEFIANCE from kicking some serious butt when it needs too. Better than I expected overall, DEFIANCE is a worthy addition to the growing sub-genre of WWII films dealing with the Holocaust. It’s exciting, sad, and by it’s conclusion, very moving. These men were heroes, and without them, many generations of families would never have had a chance.