Movies about vets struggling with post traumatic stress or other issues after service in the Middle East are so common that Hollywood has, on a few occasions, declined to release even productions with big stars on that subject. Nowadays, you pretty much have to co-star a dog (“Megan Leavey”) to find novelty in those stories and get your picture into theaters.
But the intimate, cryptic and under-stated “Blood Stripe” is compelling enough and just novel enough to break through the noise and engage us.
It’s too over-familiar and soft to be a great movie, but it is a damned good one — well-acted by its star, character-actress Kate Nowlin (“Young Adult”), who also co-wrote it.
She plays “Our Sergeant,” who returns from Iraq, a Marine Corps “Lioness,” a female warrior tough enough to alter the “Few Good Men” motto. Nowlin gives her the ramrod posture and physical confidence of a combat-tested soldier.
And that’s pretty much all we know about her as she comes home to rural Minnesota, husband Rusty (Chris Sullivan) and work as a foreman on a highway road crew.
But bright reds — a rare steak, a fresh redheaded rinse from her beautician sister-in-law, call her up short. Men make her wary, even if she endures the somewhat brutish welcome-home sex Rusty performs.
He’s on what’s called Red State Welfare — disability. He doesn’t work. Our Sergeant soldiers on, drinking too much, eating too little, jogging obsessively, mowing the lawn in the dark.
Yeah, she could use some help, but the VA waiting list is hundreds of days of long.
So she just walks off the job, takes Rusty’s truck and stumbles onto the lakeside church camp she attended as a child. She keeps to herself, does manual labor, recoils from men and doesn’t reveal much about herself to the kindly camp director (Rusty Schwimmer).
“What’d you DO over there?”
The script, by Nolan and director and co-writer Remy Auberjonois, goes easy on the flashbacks even as Our Sergeant’s antennae pick up on perceived dangers around the camp — redneck hunters, the too-friendly old handyman/fisherman who works there. There are startling scenes that take the sergeant into full combat mode — stalking, hunting for a reason to take care of any threat she perceives.
Then, some friendly churchgoers and their pastor (Rene Auberjonois, actor-turned-director Remy’s father) show up, and we begin to wonder if Our Sergeant will finally snap, or respond to the sympathetic ears of elderly Minnesota Christians.
There’s too much that’s conventional here — a love/lust interest (Tom Lipinski), suggestions of sexual assault trauma — for “Blood Stripe” (the title refers to the red stripe on the Marine Corps dress uniform) to transcend its genre and offer something totally new on the subject. It’s not quite faith-based, with a sexual edge that eschews that label, but it has a lot of the squishy attempts at “inspiring” in its tone and message.
Still, Nowlin has written and performed a fascinating character, who curses like a Marine and hurts like anyone subjected to the horrors of combat and whatever else happened to her “back there.” She makes “Blood Stripe” a solid, compelling drama about the post traumatic stresses unique to women in combat, a film that — thanks to her stoic performance and intimate, unfussy direction — engenders sympathy but never pity.
MPAA Rating: Unrated, with violence, strong sexual content, alcohol abuse and profanity
Cast: Kate Nowlin, Rusty Schwimmer, Chris Sullivan, Tom Lipinski, Rene Auberjonois
Credits: Directed by Remy Auberjonois, script by Remy Auberjonois and Kate Nowlin. A Tandem/WakeMUp release.
Running time: 1:25