‘Men Go to Battle’
Director: Zachary Treitz
Stars: Tim Morton, David Maloney
3 (out of 5) Globes
For a Civil War movie, “Men Goes to Battle” is awfully small. And no wonder: It’s an indie, filmed on the cheap, with tattered costumes that seem to have come from the country’s oldest Goodwill. But Zachary Treitz’s drama wouldn’t work as a moneyed epic. It needs to be small, to convey a small world. Our heroes — two farmer brothers, one sullen (Tim Morton), the other brash and pranky (David Maloney) — don’t engage with the big events of the day, despite living in Nowhere, Kentucky during great strife. They never even reveal their stance on slavery, if they even have one. They just keep on keeping on, living with blinders around their eyes. They’re too busy to notice history in the making.
The plot, such that there is one, is small, too, barely there. Morton’s Henry and Maloney’s Francis struggle to stay afloat. Francis wants to sell part of their arid acreage; Maloney doesn’t. Eventually Henry indeed goes to battle, whimsically lighting off to fight for the Union army until he realizes, quite quickly, what a bad idea it was. At one point there’s a modest society ball which, apart from a brief battle scene, is as financially complicated as the movie gets.
But these are mere dinghies in an ocean filled with the menial day-to-day. The script, by Treitz and the actress Kate Lyn Sheil (who drops in for a cameo), keeps things busy with incidental incidents, content to take a long stew in the past recreated. Dark, for those in the deep wilds of the country, is really, really dark. (At its most black, the digital cinematography is all grainy 1s and 0s, not entirely unlike the night scenes in Michael Mann’s “Miami Vice” film.) Days are passed working on the farm or singing by campfire or bickering about mules that have been bought before winter, when they’ll likely do nothing for them but die out in the cold. The brothers play pranks, badly hit on women and grumble when one of them snores in their tiny shared bed.
Perhaps inevitably, “Battle” can seem ostentatiously stripped-down, rubbing our noses in filth and casual misery and very little plot, as though this was all a parlor trick. Maybe it is. But there’s something underneath that makes it more than a rejoinder to the usual historical pageant — not just a film whose rarity alone makes it special. Deep down it’s not about authenticity so much as how time stomps on us all, and how major historical events occur outside of our perception. We can be too caught up in our own lives to notice all that’s going on, especially if we’re two brothers living on the outskirts of humanity in 1861. But even today we can, like Henry and Francis, become barely statistics in the cruel march of history. It’s a film as much about history as existential dread.