Men Go to Battle
Directed by Zachary Treitz
July 8-14 at Anthology Film Archives
As stewards of the Kentucky farm recently bequeathed to them, the two adult brothers at the heart of the striking Men Go to Battle, a full-immersion period piece that takes place at the dawn of the Civil War, can’t seem to get it together. The film opens as the towering Francis (David Maloney) tries—and fails—to entice a prospective buyer in part of the property, an inauspicious plot of land strangled with brush, at $75 an acre. Not long thereafter, he pleads—also unsuccessfully—with the namesake of the hamlet Small’s Corner, the slave owner Mr. Small (Steve Coulter), to loan out some of his men in exchange for a cut of next year’s crop. It’s clear that Francis’s stiff sibling Henry (Timothy Morton) has better sense—he chides his brother for impulse-buying two mules at the onset of winter, and for cooking his chicken too close to the coals—but he scarcely speaks up enough for it to make much of a difference.
Hewing close to the brothers’ perspectives throughout, the film—directed by first-timer Zachary Treitz, who co-wrote the script with Kate Lyn Sheil (who herself also appears on-screen as one of the Small daughters)—presents a chapter of the American past as it was lived by folks who had opportunities but started running out of them. Thus in Men Go to Battle, slavery and war become mere facts of life in the background, while at the fore two illiterate young men scramble to stake a claim for themselves on this society’s own terms. Henry and Francis horse around in high spirits—at one point, the latter loads a gun with a burning wad of paper and shoots it at the former while he’s sleeping—even as they disagree about what to do with their property.
The bumbling brothers’ various social shortcomings are presented to the viewer with a measure of awkward-pause humor, but to the men themselves they are clearly far from a laughing matter. After a botched flirtation with a member of the Small family (Rachel Korine), Henry winds up fleeing the scene and not looking back, leaving Francis without a clue as to his whereabouts. Henry and Francis might not be particularly compelling characters, a problem that the solid leads—Coulter, with his voice that seems to emerge from deep inside his Adam’s apple, and Morton, with his perpetually spooked countenance—can’t quite solve on their own. But as the lines of communication between the brothers are eventually reestablished, the movie nonetheless deepens as a study of codependency. (Treitz apparently cast the actors in part for their lifelong-friends rapport.) Months after Henry’s disappearance, Francis finally receives a letter from his brother, who says he’s marched all the way to Alabama as a soldier with the Union Army—an outfit that in the meantime has also set up shop in Small’s Corner. From there, the two go to great lengths to carry on an epistolary correspondence, prevailing upon others to do the bulk of the reading and writing.
From the outset, Treitz defaults to the indie-standard idiom of hardscrabble realism, the handheld camerawork of which most often maps out the contours of contemporary settings. But the hyperlocal Men Go to Battle—a microbudget affair to which critics have justly applied the adjective “resourceful” ever since its premiere at Tribeca last spring—also has subtler ways of imbuing the historical past with a sense of immediacy. For one thing, the dialogue veers away from the fussy period originalism of a film like The Witch, emphasizing instead the brothers’ offhand familiarity, if in sometimes seemingly anachronistic terms. (“Where you been, bud?” asks one brother early on. “Out and about,” answers the other.) At the same time, the director and his cinematographer, Brett Jutkiewicz, strike a keynote of huddled intimacy. Many of the film’s firelit shots are less notable for the barely illuminated human forms than for the sheer vastness of the dark surrounding them. Above all, the landscape of Men Go to Battle—which appears fully barren when not veiled in pitch blackness—feels like a place of voided certainties. Here, all guarantees, including the bonds of family, seem at risk of unraveling.