Civil War movies have always been a rare thing, so I was surprised to run across “Men Go to Battle” a few years late.
It came out the same year as the far more conventional “Field of Lost Shoes,” and at the tale end of the short-lived “Mumblecore” film movement of chatty, character-driven meanderings that gave us The Duplass Brothers, “Hannah Takes the Stairs,” “Baghead” and Greta Gerwig.
So, why not a mumblecore Civil War movie?
This deadpan dramedy plays now as what it was destined to become — a one-off stab at doing something different by a director/co-writer trying and failing to make his big break. It works, after a fashion. But there’s an aimlessness to its 5-years-in-Kentucky plot, a sense that too much important action or incident has been left out, coupled with a vivid, offhand-feeling recreation of a time and place.
Brothers Francis (David Maloney) and Henry Mellon (Timothy Morton) are hapless farmers in 1861 Kentucky tobacco country when we meet them. And as fall rolls in, we wonder how perchance these two goofs ever got their hand on the farm.
Because it’s so overgrown they can’t even sell the part of it that used to be good hemp land. And the rest has “gotten away” from them to such a degree it’ll take an army or a lot of animal labor to make productive.
Self-assured Francis blows cash on two mules, and one runs away. He pranks Henry, who seems to have more common sense, by “shooting” him (with no lead) to wake him up. But neither one is to be trusted when they’re in their cups.
Shenanigans with axe or knife are a good way to get hurt, and to avoid doing actual farmwork. Not to lay too much reality on this, but when their chickens drown, neglected during a storm, a sentient viewer is apt to wonder how they haven’t starved or died of careless cooking, gunplay or drunken accidents.
One such accident is how they end up needing a doctor, interrupting a dance at the home of the wealthy Small family. Henry makes incompetent small talk, arguing about the weather, with one of the Small daughters. At least he can joke about his cut hand to impress Betsy (Rachel Korine).
“Doc’s gonna amputate it tomorrow.”
Francis? He’s sticking his foot in it somewhere else.
Henry eventually makes his getaway, joining the Union Army. It might’ve made sense for both of these lazy lummoxes to avoid farmwork for meals and soldier’s pay. But separating them means the two illiterates have to communicate by letter.
“This war might last longer than me.”
But it doesn’t.
Director Zachary Treitz and his team do an impressive job of immersing us in the candlelit world of the rural 1860s, the drudgery of the life (but not the work, which the brothers avoid), the class differences between hardscrabble farmers and the affluent planters like Mr. Small (Steve Coulter).
Politics, slavery and racism don’t enter the story. We see an integrated church service, with slave-servants in the background of a few scenes. There’s no debate about which side these border state folks should be on.
Treitz and co-writer Kate Lyn Sheil concentrate on the brothers, sketching them in, looking for light laughs in their over-their-heads-in-most-situations plight.
Mid-war, with their village occupied, Francis insults a shorter Union infantryman and gets quickly punched-out.
The most interesting theme touched on is the different choices the siblings make — one, staying behind and the other opting for something like an adventure. But even that’s thinly developed.
A camp scene here, a picket line (patrol duty) moment there, a battle barely sketched-in. And then a finale that gives the film the feel of a half-digested parable.
“Men Go to Battle” isn’t awful, but removed from its film festival “moment,” it’s not all that, either. And that’s a shame. Treitz could have gotten something richer out of this setting and these characters.
MPA Rating: unrated, combat, alcohol abuse, smoking
Cast: David Maloney, Timothy Morton, Rachel Korine, Charlotte Arnold and Steve Coulter.
Credits: Directed by Zachary Treitz, script by Kate Lyn Sheil, Zachary Treitz. On Film Movement+.
Running time: 1:38