Zachary Treitz and Kate Lyn Sheil’s “Men Go To Battle” sets its story in the 1860s, treating the Civil War period as a background prop on a miniscule stage, in an intimate and muted story about two brothers. It’s a film that would make for an attention-grabbing double bill with “The Keeping Room” (coming to theaters in October), considering their mirrored parallels. Where the latter focuses on the bond forged between three women near the end of the Civil War, Treitz and Sheil are more interested in the rift that grows between two brothers over the course of the war’s first year. Julia Hart wrote “The Keeping Room” as a feminist picture with her heart unapologetically on her sleeve, but “Men Go To Battle” has a much more unassuming aura around it, interested in the quotidian moments of ordinary folk living on the outskirts of the war. It’s a profoundly vague piece of filmmaking that hides an undeniable magnetism beneath its bare-boned narrative.
The year is 1861, and brothers Henry (Tim Morton) and Francis Melon (David Maloney) are simple men with simple means, snuggled in a place called Small’s Corner in rural Kentucky, and indifferent to the war that has divided their country. The oddest thing about the Melons is how categorically regular they are. From the way he handles farm affairs to how he throws an axe, Francis appears to be in Henry’s shadow, and — as evidenced by his affinity for pranks — is the more juvenile of the two. Henry is the quiet, serious, type, whose countenance conveys a heavy burden. A couple of intimate moments with the brothers, whose love for one another is never expressed in words but is undeniable in glances and details, is enough to sense that their claustrophobic living conditions are beginning to take a psychological toll on Henry. When a play fight takes a sour turn one night, and Francis accidentally cuts Henry’s hand, the two venture into town in the dead of night to look for medical assistance.
They find the town’s doctor getting entertained at the Small household, the community’s most prominent family, which includes older daughter Josephine (Sheil) and the adolescent Betsy (Rachel Korine). Henry receives treatment for his hand, and finds himself on the porch, alone with Betsy, making endearingly awkward weather conversation, while Francis forgets himself for a minute at the party. Betsy’s offer of a sip of alcohol sends mixed signals to Henry, who seizes the moment and unwittingly crushes Betsy’s lofty first kiss expectations. Her sudden burst into tears leaves Henry dumbfounded and ashamed, but with an unexpected window of opportunity to disappear. Months later, Francis learns that Henry has joined the war and the two brothers begin to communicate through letters.
With these narrative outlines and shades, “Men Go To Battle” makes it clear from the outset that the appeal is in the packaging, not the content. The epically scaled battlefields and melodramatic swings of emotion that come most readily to mind when thinking about Civil War films (“Glory,” “Cold Mountain,” etc.) are nowhere to be found here. I’m reminded of the title sequence that creeps up on the viewer during a tranquil minute in the field, while the sounds of rifles and bayonets are too far to be heard. Or, a single take in Small’s convenience store that ends with Francis picking a fight with a soldier in the background while a fleeting conversation between minor characters comes to a close in the foreground. There is a gracefulness in the all-encompassing way Treitz, Sheil, and cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz approach the time period, and these colorless characters; at times diverting attention from the Melon brothers to an offbeat character who only has one scene to make an impression, and usually does. The naturalism of the dialogue and action, and the DIY attitude exposed by the production values, build an instant familiarity and highlight the fact that, above all else, these characters are people just like us, alienated from their surroundings, feeling a similar kind of restlessness that’s saturating our millennial age. This is period piece mumblecore, which fans of the indie movement will hold in high esteem.
The effectiveness of Jutkiewicz’ cinematography and camera work cannot be overstated. Unpretentious long takes, coupled with Treitz’ intimate framing and shot composition, give Jutkiewicz the freedom to use natural light and deep shadow and coat the picture in a palpable atmosphere. With Jacob Heustis’ impressive production design of the Small household and the Melon cabin, among a couple of other key set pieces, the film does a tremendous job of transporting you back into the Civil War period on a shoestring budget. Of course, none of it would be compelling if the actors failed to convince, a task non-professionals Morton and Maloney are more than up to. They have a subtle and dynamic chemistry with one another, and a captivating screen presence that switches between charismatic awkwardness and contemplation, taking a few welcome comical turns in Maloney’s case.
The film definitely suffers from a lack of conflict, keeping Henry’s internal struggle ambiguously between the lines of the second half of the film and all the way to the end. It’s also somewhat disappointing in its bland female characterizations, which is a bit of eyebrow-raiser considering Sheil co-wrote the script. Korine and Sheil bring sweet sensibilities to Betsy and Josephine, but their personalities fade into the background compared to even the most minor male characters. Given its anti-ideological vibe, however, that shouldn’t be used too forcefully against the film. Much like its characters, “Men Go To Battle” is politically apathetic, more concerned with making characters and actions relatable on a universally human level. The film succeeds on both a technical and artistic level, despite its malnourished narrative, by being a fascinating product of a booming indie movement, and a quietly resonant cinematic experience. [B+]