It isn’t easy to stage a Civil War story on a budget that probably couldn’t pay for a day’s lunch on the set of Glory (even before you adjust for inflation), but Zachary Treitz’s Men Go to Battle is a triumph of resourcefulness. That seems worth stating outright, because the film’s narrative virtues are ultimately inextricable from how vividly it conjures such a distant and spectacular chapter of American history.
It’s November 1861, and daily life in Small’s Corner, Kentucky is resolutely oblivious to the bloody conflict that’s beginning to stir around it. The Mellon brothers tend to the acres of brittle farmland they’ve inherited from their parents, the puckish Francis (David Maloney) playing pranks on the younger, more sensitive Henry (Tim Morton) in order to pass the time. There’s nothing remarkable about either of these aimless young men, and an agreeable tension soon develops between the historical gravitas of their era and the dispassionate remove of their age. When Henry ruins his chances with the only eligible girl in town, weeks pass before Francis even learns that his embarrassed brother has joined up with the Union Army.
The elliptical story of sibling despondency doesn’t quite hang together, though the groundswell of missed potential doesn’t come into focus until the film’s undeniably powerful closing moments. Treitz keeps such a dispassionate remove from his characters that the Mellons are lost amongst the fetishistic attention to period detail. The loudest flourish is also the most glaring misstep, as Treitz rounds up scores of Civil War re-enactors to play the Union troops, the extras so overcompensating for the small production that they unbalance the same illusion they’ve been hired to cement.
It’s only a grave issue because Men Go to Battle is resolutely less interested in telling a conventional story than it is in flattening the time that’s elapsed between now and then. Shot handheld and with little apparent concern for masking the plastic veneer of digital cinematography, Men Go to Battle creates such a coherent sense of the past in part because of how well it leverages the aesthetics of the present. Francis and Henry are so blank and bearded that they could be swapped into a terse Brooklyn indie without having to update their wardrobes, and compulsively watchable micro-budget stalwart Kate Lyn Sheil (also a co-writer) shows up in a supporting role just to hammer the point across. The effect provides an avenue for intimacy, heartbreak and even sarcasm in a milieu typically reserved for grand spectacles and emotions so large that they need a symphonic score just to support their weight. There’s some precedent for this kind of thing (last year’s The Retrieval, and this fall’s excellent The Keeping Room), but that doesn’t diminish Treitz’s vision, which is ironically what galvanizes this story of two men who are incapable of seeing what the future holds.
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