Men Go To Battle (2015)

Francis (David Maloney) and Henry Mellon (Tim Morton) are brothers who own a farm in rural Kentucky, during the early days of the Civil War. Just how they came to be in such a situation remains unclear: they may have only turned their hands to the land for lack of any better idea, or might have inherited the property and tried to make a go of it. But neither brother seems to know his ass from the holes in the ground they’re barely fit enough to dig. Francis tries to sell off part of the land to keep them in food and liquor, whilst Henry grouchily naysays and boozes. Francis’s plan is frustrated because no buyer wants to purchase uncleared land for the price he wants, and his frantic attempt to mow the scrub sees him reduced to a panting mess. The brothers wait out the winter drinking and mucking about, and have hesitant interactions with their more respectable neighbours and townsfolk. 

The Mellons are so far off the social map they’re not invited to a dance given by the prosperous Mr Small (Steve Coulter), who has two daughters, Betsy (Rachel Korine) and Josephine (Kate Lyn Sheil), whom the two men shyly appreciate from a distance. One night, during one of their drunken escapades, Henry slices his hand open, and Francis escorts him into town to get it stitched up: Francis is invited to join the Smalls’ dance whilst the town doctor attends to his brother. Henry, once repaired, finds himself trying to sustain polite and amiable chat with a mysteriously weepy Betsy. His attempt to steal a kiss however results in another crying fit, and Henry wanders off into the woods and vanishes. A search party can’t turn up hide or hair of him, and Francis, left alone, begins to look seriously at making his farm productive. When he finally does receive a letter from Henry, it turns out he’s joined the Union Army.

The Civil War epoch, when visited by filmmakers, is usually seen through lenses of great and noble epicism, whether it be the drum-and-trumpet guff of Ronald F. Maxwell’s soporific Gettysburg (1993), or the more conscientious likes of Gary Ross’s flaccidly well-intentioned Free State of Jones (2016). Director Zachary Treitz and Sheil, who shared screenwriting duties, here aim instead to bring the aesthetic approach of modern independent film to the historical drama: Men Go To Battle is filmed with handheld cameras and utilising natural light, shot in gritty environs, unfolding a story that scarcely counts a plot but rather a drolly observational adventure driven by the shambolic characters who pass before the camera like people who wandered into frame. Francis and Henry are the kind of shiftless half-smart boy-men who drift past the cameras of many indie filmmakers, with a hint of Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pecuchet gone Dixie and without the intellectualism. They hover around the fringes of border state society, gazing helplessly at the big houses on the hills and its comely inhabitants, and surveying land they own but can’t raise the wit or will to make produce. They stay drunk most of the time and revel in playful aggressions, as when Francis shoots a reposing Henry with his shotgun, riddling him not with shot but burning grass. 

The cleverer touch in Treitz and Sheil’s script is that the two brothers are slowly revealed not so much as mere co-dependent screw-ups, but as two men who inadvertently foil each-other’s energy even as they cling to one-another in fear of life. Their eventual split brings about forced evolution in their approaches to their tenure on the planet, first signalled as Francis, invited to join the Smalls’ party, starts to cut loose with his eccentric energy turned on a social sphere for once whilst Henry retreats before the gathering but makes his own play on a quieter stage. Meanwhile the ladies of the Small manse drift through their days equally confused and aimless in their way but tended to by servants and urged along by the habits of the age, taking calls from more appropriate gentlemen callers as long as prosperity lasts. Henry’s bluff discussion of the weather with Josephine could well be the apogee of “mumblecore” and its obsession with the texture of banality’s place as the essence of most human interaction, just actually cut through by an impulsive but powerful gesture profundity, no matter how ill-placed, like Henry’s kiss, which proves not the catalyst of romance but the straw that breaks the camel’s back, and sends him into the world in search of a less tedious fate. That next phase of his life involves marching around the cold and dreary countryside with lots of other man similarly plucked out of their usual lives, occasionally skirting the edges of great slaughters, and trading goods with similarly bewildered Confederates.

The film’s lone depiction of war is a set-piece of simulation and forced viewpoint, the camera fixed on Henry as he advances with a line in to battle with men pitching dead and wounded about him, until finally he’s knocked out. He awakens surrounded by the carnage of battle and stumbles away, stripping off his uniform and gear and makes for the trees as the sun sinks and the horizon billows with smoke from the battlefield, obeying all good instinct to abandon this game of soldiers and make his way back home. This makes for one of the most striking filmmaking vignettes of the year. Although the restless, skirting photography couldn’t be more different to the poise of Stanley Kubrick’s camera, there is nonetheless a similarity of intent and effect to the filmmaking here in stripping away artifice from the historical style to what Kubrick managed on Barry Lyndon (1975), with scenes shot in guttering candlelight and bleary sunlight. Also, a sequence in which Henry encounters a solitary woman and family in a farmhouse mirrors one in the Kubrick film, but where Kubrick channelled Regency bawdiness Treitz goes for emasculated voyeurism.

Treitz’s film is also a defloration of Gone with the Wind’s (1939) depiction of the downfall of the antebellum gentry, made to work through the resolutely intimate, low-key assumptions of indie film, perhaps to make the point this style can depict socio-political ideas, if only sketchily. Henry’s return to his home town sees the Small mansion a ghostly shell inhabited not by depraved miscreants but Union soldiers at play, a hilariously weird and eerie moment. Francis prospers as war brings disruption to a stable world and new prospects, his tobacco crops a licence to print money and his small farm able to prosper whilst larger plantations and farms are ransacked and degraded. This revolution, the film suggests, is the quiet and perhaps more effective upheaval evinced in the war’s history, the ponderous pretence of an old world ideal giving way to a scrappier proletarian age. The film’s punch-line is Henry’s shock that Francis is married to Betsy, now ensconced as dutiful wife in the hut the two men could barely share in a town that was named after her family. The ultimately frustrating aspect of Men Go to Battle is that, whilst its approach to its chosen era and genre is quite original, it also feels less ambitious than it could be. The pointillist sense of authenticity and detail is fascinating and the historical thesis worthwhile, but not sufficient to distract from the fact that, when it's all boiled down, this is mostly just a modest study of two brothers growing up and apart, with a dedication to fine surfaces, lacking much clear sense of what makes its people tick. As a result, it doesn’t entirely reinvent the war movie, the historical drama, or the indie film, even as it counts as one of the more charming and intriguing attempts at all three lately, and does suggest new places to go.

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