Men Go to Battle
MEN GO TO BATTLE, drama, not rated, The Screen, 3 chiles
Picture a couple of dudes with scraggly beards and odd hats, passing bottles around a campfire. No, this isn’t Coachella or Bonnaroo during the Obama administration, where everyone is waiting to see MGMT, Tame Impala, or Battles. It’s 1861, and these are real men — with real battles.
The men in question are brothers Henry and Francis Mellon, and their primary concern is just finding a way to keep food in their bellies. They share an overgrown patch of forested hills in the heart of Kentucky, and as this beautifully shot debut feature from director Zachary Treitz opens, Francis (David Maloney) is attempting to sell a big chunk of it. He is the go-getter of the pair, networking with neighbors and coming up with schemes to put food on the table, while Henry (Timothy Morton) sleeps late and tends to keep to himself once roused.
The brothers make fires. They hunt turkeys. They horse around, occasionally with donkeys rather than horses. They compete, sporadically and indirectly, for the affections of a shopkeeper’s daughter (Rachel Korine). Eventually Henry gets mixed up in the war, but mostly they just try to escape hunger. There isn’t a lot of action here, and long stretches pass by with sparse dialogue. The photography is what draws you into the film. Much of it unfolds during autumn, and the camera allows us to drink in the textures of the landscape, with its browning weeds, grasping branches, and fallen leaves. The glow of candlelight imparts a sense of human warmth to interior scenes. We watch Henry wandering the countryside as the setting sun ducks in and out of view behind him, painting the fields in sepia tones.
The production, shot on location in central Kentucky, got a boost from the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Perryville, a short-lived victory for the South that was quickly undone by the arrival of more Union forces, driving the Confederates back toward Tennessee (the Union would control Kentucky for the rest of the war). Re-enactments of the fight are held yearly at the battlefield, but the anniversary commemoration brought many more participants, in period garb, who were dedicated to mounting a realistic recreation of the events. Treitz and cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz managed to persuade those taking part to allow them to film discreetly, wearing appropriate clothes and disguising the camera in a burlap sack so as not to ruin the moment.
It’s tempting to look at Men Go to Battle as a glorified calling card for the principals, shrewdly crafted to attract more lucrative work, but it’s more than that. Maloney and Morton give nuanced and engrossing performances, and the dialogue, written by Kate Lyn Sheil and Treitz, drawing from archived letters of the time, has the ring of a bygone era without sounding phony. It’s easy to see why Treitz took home a prize for best emerging director at Tribeca last year. This is good independent filmmaking, and a labor of love. — Jeff Acker
Real men have beards: Timothy Morton