Save for surrogate child Aron, each of the Bielski boys gets a girl (following appropriate close-up reactions and then mourning times when the two eldest learn their first, never-seen wives have been killed in the cities where they have been sent to be safe). In what seems an imposed structure, Zus and Tuvia are set in tension, following the latter’s decision to assassinate their parents’ killer and his two sons, in front of his wailing wife. Traumatized,
Tuvia insists that they manage their business going forward without becoming “animals” like their enemies, while Zus wants to kill every Nazi in sight, preferably brutally (one particular error in judgment leaves Zus furious: “We should have killed the fucking milkman,” he mocks his brother, “This politics of diplomacy is shit"). This philosophical split leaves Asael mostly caught in between (that is, when he’s not distracted by the pretty girl Chaya [Mia Wasikowska], whom he eventually weds in a traditional rustic ceremony). Such melodrama drags the rest of this ostensibly historical saga into a decidedly middling territory.
The film’s insistence on romantic clichés and reductive moralities amid the chaos of the war means it loses sight of the sheer determination and ingenuity that provided for the Bielski group’s survival, which, more than once, involved picking up the entire camp and moving elsewhere. By the time an epigraph notes the extent of their forest society (and adds that the brothers not only survived this prolonged hell, but then also emigrated to New York and opened a family business), you’re left wondering how Defiance came to spend so much time on the stalest story points