Above all other things, Lake of Fire is madly ambitious, almost certainly the most overreaching film of 2007. I mean that in a good way. The one accusation we would never want to make of a 152-minute, black-and-white documentary about abortion, is being insufficiently ambitious.

Just the bare facts about the film's production history are enough to make that case: famed and much-laureled commercial director Tony Kaye began in 1990 to make what he hoped to be the definitive work on the abortion debate. For 16 years he assembled footage from news reports, PSAs, newly-shot interviews, all paid out of his own pocket, all while slowly turning into an eccentric pariah, a shift highlighted by his notorious and embarrassing fight with New Line and Edward Norton over the final cut of his 1998 film American History X. Ultimately he had a monster-sized thing that he premiered to overwhelmingly positive reviews at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival, and here, a year later, Think Film has released it in a low-key national run.

Not possessing an encyclopedic knowledge of every motion picture documentary ever produced, I should shy away from hyperbole, but I somehow feel safe in proposing that for good or ill, you have never seen a film quite like this one. It freely mixes techniques from all across the spectrum of film production - some chilling, some hokey - to create a portrait, not an argument, depicting every position he could get his hands on in varying detail; it is an exhausting portrait that doesn't quite feel as definitive as the filmmaker intended, although I can't imagine how any film on the subject could get closer than this.

For want of a better place to begin, take the cinematography, gorgeous 35mm monochrome work that it is. There's a lot of baggage getting thrown around here: first is our expectation that documentaries should be shot on grungy, grainy film, a clichΓ© so well-worn that it's spawned the sub-clichΓ© of calling any film shot on less than pristine stock "documentarylike." Then there's our expectations about black-and-white films: that too is typically seen as a "documentary" trope, or a matter of economy, or if it is clean and shiny, it signifies moodiness, even Expressionism. Lake of Fire is a glossy black-and-white documentary, which feels like a whole bundle of contradictions, and this is the point, completely. It unnerves us and sets us outside of the film the be confronted with something so pictorially undefinable.

Why would Kaye want to lock us out of his meticulously researched film? I'm tempted to say, because it is not meant to be an emotionally upsetting experience, it is a thought piece. The director wants us to be level-headed about this topic, and since there is hardly any topic less inclined towards calm reflection in this country than abortion, he must pull us out of the subject, make it abstract, and the film's look is extremely objectifying.

So then, on to the content of the film. Which, at two and a half hours, is quite a lot to synopsise. There are a lot of talking heads, although it's not a talking heads documentary. There is quite a lot of on-the-ground footage of protesters, but it's not that kind of documentary either. It's an impressionistic rush of images and ideas, really, but that's so vague as to be worse than useless.

In concrete terms, the film moves from pro-life to pro-choice persons, watching them expound on their opinions while very cautiously avoiding any of their points of view. Sometimes these are presented as straight-up interviews, sometimes as recordings of stump speeches. The subjects range from arch-leftist Noam Chomsky to white supremacist Randall Terry, and I don't think it's just my bias talking if I suggest that in the aggregate, the pro-life people tend to have crazier and scarier and less rational people up to bat (the Dominionist-survivalist father is particular charmer). But mostly, the fringe elements are shown to be the fringe, an the meat of the film comes from reasonable figures like former "Jane Roe" and current pro-life activist Norma McCorvey, liberal/libertarian pro-lifer Nat Hentoff of the Village Voice, the pro-choice Alan Dershowitz, and a slew of anonymous and seminonymous women and men, such as the eager youngish fellow who thinks that women who get abortions are anti-Biblical and should be executed along with atheists and people who say "god damn," or Stacey, a 28-year-old who we follow into an abortion clinic to hear her reiterate to the social worker on staff why she knows that it is important she terminate her pregnancy, being much too unstable and impoverished to even consider raising a child. In three key places, graphic footage is shown of the abortion process, never as exploitation but more in the spirit of clear-eyed inquiry.

It would be idiotic to catalogue the film's content or to recap its themes; those things are the business of the film. But in essence, it's a film that eschews all obvious sympathy towards one side of the debate (although the order of scenes tends to make me assume that Kaye is more pro-choice than not), running to the point that we'd probably do best to call "moderate": there are too many times that abortion is important, but it is never, ever a "nice" or "desirable" or "easy" thing. Except that saying it all neat like that makes it seem like it takes the safe way out, when the film is anything but safe: it is hellbent on making the viewer think about abortion, and even if we end up where we began , at least we've been forced to analyse why we think what we think. Certainly, I am a strict ideologue about this subject, and I never wavered in my opinion, but I think that I am more aware now of what that opinion means to me.

This theme explains one of the film's most pervasive and truthfully, annoying tricks: most of the text, from title to virtually every on-screen name or title card, starts with some bit of manipulation, usually with it starting upside-down and then flipping 180ΒΊ. At first I thought this was some sort of "mirror" metaphor, and perhaps it is in a way that I can't quite understand; but I think the more obvious and more correct reading is that it's a tiny indication of how Kaye wants to flip the viewer's perspective.

It's cloying. And it's not the film's only flaw, nor its most serious. That honor would surely go to the overwhelmingly male perspective. Maybe not "overwhelmingly." But it's striking and undeniable that most of the quiet, philosophical voices and most of the raging religious screams are those of men. The only time that the film actually focuses for any length of time on a woman's experience of the abortion procedure is when it follows Stacey - a brilliant sequence with a sucker-punch at the end, and surely the film could have used more moments like that? This is after all ultimately a question about female autonomy, and there aren't nearly enough females, autonomous or not, to make that point stick.

Moreover, there is a pervasive lack of context throughout the film, in ways that serve both sides of the debate (fair! balanced!) but feel too often like Kaye thought he had to "cheat." Which is obviously not the case, but a truly definitive abortion film would have dug a little bit deeper. At such an epic length (which doesn't feel entirely earned, honestly), there shouldn't have been any holes.

But Kaye isn't trying to make an airtight case, for he has no argument. His goal is to present, and presents many things, most of them things that most of us have not likely encountered. Lake of Fire is going to be more of an eye-opener for some people than for others, but it is in all cases it is a thought-provoking film, one that raises questions and lets us think them through, to reach whatever answer lies best with our own consciences.

8/10