The feeling of helplessness and vulnerability in a war zone, even as you battle to help people who might shoot you the moment you turn your back, is the core emotion at the heart of Sand Castle, a different kind of American war movie that leaves any notion of glory in the dust.
Star Nicholas Hoult believes such feelings of dread are commonplace among soldiers.
“You get obsessed over completing the mission even though in the end it’s pointless – and you feel like you’ve failed,” he says.
Far from a hero's journey, Sand Castle, a Netflix original movie available to stream from Friday, is a visceral exploration of the horrors of war and how it affects soldiers.
It follows a group of American soldiers in Iraq in 2003, the early days of the second Gulf War. We bear witness to the heat and the horror through the inexperienced private Matt Ocre (Hoult) who, with his fellow soldiers, is ordered to the outskirts of Baqubah to repair a water-pumping station damaged by American bombs.
As Ocre discovers, in an atmosphere where resentment and anger fester, trying to win the hearts and minds of the locals is a task fraught with danger. Here, in the streets, squares and schools, he discovers the true cost of war, with a sense of futility that hits home with blunt emotional force.
Hoult encountered the script five years ago when it made it onto the Black List, an annual Hollywood survey of the hottest unproduced screenplays. “It wasn’t that thing, like in many war films, where you see the best of the best, the elite,” says the 27-year-old British actor.
"There, you see people who were trained and end up in a bad situation, but they're still trained for it. This is more along the lines of [2010 documentary] Restrepo: young guys, yes, they're trained, but they're not necessarily super-elite soldiers."
Screenwriter and war veteran Chris Roessner – who has two years and more than 200 missions in Iraq’s Sunni Triangle to his name – says while his script is not an autobiography, it is inspired by real events and he feels close to the experiences of Ocre.
“When I was 18, of course, I was very scared [in Iraq],” he says. “What I didn’t know at that time is that everyone else was scared as well, but they were just better at hiding it.”
Hoult made his film acting debut at the age of 7 in Intimate Relations (1996). His breakout role came in 2002 opposite Hugh Grant in About a Boy, which was followed by two seasons as manipulative Bristol teenager Tony Stonem in the Bafta-winning British series drama Skins.
Hollywood beckoned and recent roles include Hank McCoy/Beast in the X-Men films, lovestruck zombie R in Warm Bodies (2013), the young J D Salinger in Rebel in the Rye (2017) and the crazed Nux in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015).
He will soon play legendary inventor Nikola Tesla in The Current War, due out in December, striking sparks off electrical rival Thomas Edison, played by Sherlock's Benedict Cumberbatch. He is also providing the voice of Fiver in a new TV mini-series adaptation of Watership Down.
Through all of the above – including four years of dating with fellow X-Men co-star Jennifer Lawrence before their 2014 split – Hoult has worked with children's charities, including the Teenage Cancer Trust and Save The Children. In 2007, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. He also remains loyal to old friends, including Skins co-star Kaya Scodelario, who calls Hoult her "guardian angel in this industry".
Hoult's co-stars in Sand Castle include: Henry Cavill (Man of Steel); Glen Powell (Hidden Figures); Neil Brown Jr. (The Walking Dead); and Logan Marshall-Green (Prometheus, Quarry).
Brazilian-born director Fernando Coimbra (A Wolf at the Door) says that after his first reading of the Sand Castle script, he couldn't shake the grim images of Ocre and his comrades taking on their impossible task, akin to Sisyphus, from Greek mythology, doomed to roll a boulder up a hill for all eternity.
“Sisyphus’s work is like Matt,” says Coimbra. “He could never finish by himself. He has to leave and go back home without fixing it.”