‘The Inspection’ Review: A Story of the Few, the Proud, and the Very Horny

Movie Review

Director Elegance Bratton’s makes a poignant autobiographical film debut about a gay Marine trying to find acceptance in the hypermasculine landscape of the military and having more than a few homoerotic fantasies along the way

‘The Inspection’: A Story of the Few, the Proud, and the Very Horny | FMV6

At the start of Elegance Bratton’s new feature, The Inspection, Ellis French (Jeremy Pope) — based on Bratton himself — leaves home to join the Marines. It isn’t much of a home to begin with. This isn’t where he lives. His mother, Inez (Gabrielle Union), kicked him out years earlier for being gay. She is not exactly one to roll out the welcome mat when her son visits — not even if he’s only stopping by to inform her of this new chapter in his life. But the news does get her attention. The Inspection is set during the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” era of the American military. And Ellis, bless him, is femme enough that you may not really need to ask. Femme enough for his mother to treat his mere presence like a reproach. You can see the sting of it in her face. Ellis opens his mouth and Inez reacts like someone who’s been accused of being a bad mother. As if everything her son does is a detailed referendum of her own failures, and nothing more.

So maybe it’s good — for her — that Ellis is enlisting. What The Inspection sets out to explore is how and whether it’s good for Ellis. In reality, Bratton was kicked out of his own home at 16 years old for the same reasons that Ellis was kicked out of his. He spent a decade of his life living unhoused before enlisting. The Inspection does not depict that chapter of his life, but you sense that Ellis is at a minimum grateful for the basic stabilities of enlisted life: a place to live, food to eat, jobs to do. The rest proves more complicated. Suffice to say that the Marine Corps of Bratton’s movie is a place where a wide range of men, not only Ellis, go to manufacture new selves for themselves. It’s where they go to scrub themselves of their meaningless imperfection, honing their bodies and spirits into something shared, masculine, and fully formed. Ellis finds himself buttressed on both sides by men at various stages of their own journeys. There are the bullies among his fellow enlistees (most notably a guy named Laurence, played by McCaul Lombardi). And there is a bully in the form of a training instructor, Leland Laws, played by a sneeringly cruel Bokeem Woodbine. Both men alight on Ellis from the very start, as if they’ve sniffed him out: the man who doesn’t belong.

What it takes for Ellis to survive this is of course one of the themes on The Inspection’s mind. But Bratton, to his great credit, has not forgotten or ignored the ironies at the heart of his premise: of a queer, Black man turning to the Marines, of all things, for something like self-acceptance; of this all-male terrain, with its shared showers and intimate physicality, being as dangerous for a queer man as it is, and in certain obvious senses, more than a little titillating. The idea of the hypermasculine Marine ethos making a man like Ellis less “gay-acting” scans, and Pope’s performance gives us an Ellis who gradually hardens, in some ways, over the course of the movie. But the idea of any of this making him less gay is, unsurprisingly, not going to work out (nor is it what Ellis, contra his mother, seems to want or expect for himself). Since its premiere at the New York Film Festival this year, The Inspection has been praised for its emotionally rich reality and deeply-felt drama, appropriately so. Those qualities are what make us praise a film like this for being universal.

The qualities that make it interesting, though, belong to this other realm: the realm of gay-ass sexual fantasies, inference, projection. The arc that The Inspection finely traces is that of a young man pivoting between multiple models for what kind of person he might become. Sexual attraction nudges him toward one of his training instructors, a man named Rosales (Raúl Castillo) — the good cop to Leland’s bad cop, a man sensitive enough to notice the miniature aggressions of the other enlistees toward Ellis, who sticks his neck out, shows a little compassion, and maybe/maybe-not has intentions misread by the young man he’s taken under his wing. Bratton’s movie largely looks and feels like a capable, confident bit of arthouse fare. But it opens up as Ellis’s mind goes places that it perhaps shouldn’t. He fantasizes. Communal showers suddenly appear to us in a pink-purple haze of slow moving, poppered up, headswimming ecstasy — a bathhouse, essentially. The bullies, with their snake-rattling sense of threat, become open targets for Ellis’s desiring gaze. But only in his mind, where it’s safe to gaze.

The Inspection is at its best when the reality of boot camp seems to merge with Ellis’s inner desires, complicating his life among his fellow enlistees by dangling the vaguest chance of sexual possibility just out of reach. It becomes less of a movie that’s plainly about who Ellis is and more of a movie about what Ellis wants. Pope and Castillo are especially good at making the relationship between these two men so tantalizingly ambiguous. Is it that Rosales understands Ellis because he, too, is gay? Is it strictly paternal? Is he — God forbid — just a good guy? Bratton revels in the implications. One of the best things about the movie is in fact that Ellis does not fit in — that he would not survive this if not for the help of someone like Rosales guiding him toward some version of himself that would get the other men off of his back. That, alone, is reason enough for Rosales to intervene. Ellis falls back on his assumptions with the quickness of someone who cannot imagine (or doesn’t want to imagine) that Rosales would care for any other reason — like someone for whom the pathways for male intimacy are severely limited, such that the meagerest show of care is at risk of seeming like something else.

This is not a tale of a young man who can “pass” and, knowing that it may matter to his survival, toughens up, puts on a masculine drag. It’s a movie intent on showing us that this is all drag — it’s all put-on, all available to the play of identity. Will that be enough to satisfy his mother — performing the role of the son that she wants him to be? One gathers that Ellis’s confusion over intimacy and what it can mean has more than a little to do with his mother. It is appropriate for Bratton to bookend this story with scenes between the two of them — it clarifies much of who Elis is. In the role of Inez, Union is dishearteningly convincing. The Inspection ends by circling back to her, to answer the questions that it set up at the start. This is not a kind woman. Union wisely gives life to the pure ugliness of her attitudes. She internalizes her son’s queerness as if it were a personal sleight: How could he do this to me? It’s a little shocking to reach the end of the movie and be reminded of what this experience has meant for Ellis, as distinct from what it means for his mother.

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It is more than a matter of what she believes. She leans on her religion as justification. But her circumstances are on her mind, too: the fact of how hard she’s had to work, how little she still has. The fact that she raised her son on her own — only for him to turn out like this. Union looks at Pope, in the handful of scenes that they share, like someone whose face is being rubbed in her own vomit. A byproduct of her own body that she nevertheless cannot stomach. Union’s performance works because it all, for its towering heartbreak, feels so petty; her swerves toward and away from her son’s affections feel almost childish. Union plays Inez as if she’s all too aware of this by the end — too aware that she’s at the margins of her son’s life. This is a circumstance that is ultimately of her own choosing.

The Inspection seems to bend toward reconciliation. It gestures toward the familiar arc, in which someone is forgiven, or if not this, begrudgingly understood. But the wound of this story is stitched closed with something murkier. What feels most possible, most realistic in the end is distance. Ellis tries to lay claim to his mother, despite it all. She is his mother, he reminds her; that cannot change. Bratton’s movie makes no promise that she will ever feel the same. If anything, Ellis’s open-hearted embrace only makes it harder to believe that she will.

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