(2016) Drama (Tandem Pictures) Kate Nowlin, Rusty Schwimmer, Chris Sullivan, Rene Auberjonois, Ashlie Atkinson, Tom Lipinski, Taliesin Cox, Ken Marks, Greta Oglesby, Sunde Auberjonois, Mason Jennings, Jeremy Johnson, Louis Jenkins, Reed Sigmund, Emily Zimmer, David Clay, Scotty Nelson, Benson Ramsey, Kristen Gregerson. Directed by Remy Auberjonois
With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continuing to slog on with no end in sight, Hollywood as well as independent filmmakers have seized upon the return home of combat veterans as a theme with varying degrees of quality. In all honesty, the question I ask myself when viewing one of these is “What, if anything, new does this film bring to the subject?”
A nameless Marine, referred to in the credits only as Our Sergeant (Nowlin) – I suppose in an attempt to make her something of an everywoman – returns home to Northern Minnesota. Picked up by an in-law from the airport, she receives a somewhat muted welcome home from her husband Rusty (Sullivan). It is clear from the get-go that she has got a lot of issues, from an overreaction when she gets an overenthusiastic hug from a drunken male guest at her welcome home party to her constant insistence that she’s fine when she clearly isn’t, she eats little, sleeps hardly at all and drinks heavily. She runs obsessively and mows her lawn in the middle of the night. When Rusty hesitantly asks if she shouldn’t see someone, she says tersely “There’s a wait.” As it turns out, there’s a 129 day wait at the local VA, a situation which has fallen off the radar of late.
She acquires a job working on a highway repair crew but is given little to do. One fine day, she just seems to snap; she stares off into the distance while a co-worker talks to her, a haunted expression on her face and without a word turns and walks off the job, climbs into her husband’s truck and just drives away.
Where she winds up driving to is a summer camp that she attended as a kid. It’s off-season now and the tranquil waters of the lake shore are quiet, the sounds of children vanished with the heat of the summer. The caretaker, Dot (Schwimmer) has a load of work to do and only an aging handyman with a bad back to help her. She takes on the Marine giving her room and board in exchange for her efforts lugging and lifting. When Dot compliments her on her work ethic, the Sergeant says “Nobody ever drowned from sweat,” attributing the quote to a drill sergeant.
The hard work and lovely scenery seems to bring some solace to the tortured soul of the Sergeant and when a small church group led by elderly pastor Art (Rene Auberjonois, the director’s father) she finds further solace with one of the younger parishioners (Lipinski) who acts as their fishing guide. He also has a troubled past of his own.
Still, she can’t outrun her demons; a pair of hunters who blare Metallica from their car stereo everywhere they go trigger a defensive reaction in her and she ends up reconnoitering their home to see what they might be up to. Attempts at intimacy with the fisherman end up disastrously and calls to her frantic husband range from cold to crisis. Can this woman ever find peace?
The movie, co-written by Remy Auberjonois and Nowlin (who are husband and wife in real life), doesn’t give us a lot of background into Our Sergeant which is both maddening and admirable. We don’t know what trauma caused her breakdown and there aren’t the obligatory flashbacks to show us definitively what put her into that state. We surmise that she was either tortured or sexually assaulted (or both) from the scars on her back and her general reaction to men but there are no absolute answers which lead us to make up our own narrative as to her past.
Nowlin is a real talent and she captures the bearing and posture of a Marine minus the swagger. We can absolutely believe she’s been to war and acquitted herself with honor. We can also believe that she’s been through hell and is haunted by demons that we civilians can’t even imagine. Her expression during the breakdown scenes tell us everything we need to know.
Cinematographer Radium Cheung also acquits himself well, giving us some beautiful vistas of the northern Minnesota lake country as well as some interesting shots during the final third of the movie that help us see inside the protagonist’s head. This is a lovely movie to see visually.
The subplot about the Metallica boys seemed unnecessary and contrived; the writers had already established that Our Sergeant had a touch of paranoia about her. It seems to inject elements of a thriller into what was already a fine drama; they should have left it with the drama which seemed to be much more in their wheelhouse.
The character of Our Sergeant is central to the film in any case and she’s a fascinating if enigmatic character indeed. Schwimmer and the elder Auberjonois both deliver solid supporting performances as does Lipinski even though the romantic chemistry seems a bit forced and again feels like it was a tangent that the filmmakers should have avoided. What we’re more interested in is Nowlin’s character and whenever the focus came off of her the movie suffered.
This was an award-winning entry at the 2016 Los Angeles Film Festival and only last month did it get a brief theatrical release. It will likely show up on some streaming service or another at some point; it is worth seeking out when it does because movies like this one which fly even a little bit out of the box should always be supported and in any case there is enough quality here to recommend it.
REASONS TO GO: There is some lovely cinematography. Nowlin does a bang-up job.
REASONS TO STAY: I’m not sure the metal-head hunters’ subplot was absolutely necessary. The romance doesn’t work very well.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of profanity, some violence, disturbing adult themes and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Blood Stripe refers to the red stripe on the trouser leg of the dress uniform of the United States Marine Corps.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Lucky Ones
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: All Eyez on Me