Few of us live our lives in widescreen. The frames in which our days play out tend to be tight and personal, the vistas only occasional. We see what we need to, what’s before us, what we actually inhabit. That truth has long been the source of a distracting falseness in historical moviemaking, which so often emphasizes the sweep of the past. When they do narrow their focus to marvel over specific details, these films home in on the kind that might fascinate us but that the participants in the narrative would have looked right over — Hollywood period pieces take a tour of other times, rather than live in them.
That frame has rarely been as tightly constrained as it is in Zachary Treitz’s knockout debut feature, Men Go to Battle. This micro-budgeted indie, set in Kentucky in 1861, is never concerned with what its characters aren’t. We share their hemmed-in perspective, observing them in candlelit homes or hunkered around campfires, their faces half-submerged in the shadows of their weedy patch of pre-electric world. The soundtrack, too, is scraped of movie fakery: The only music is sawn out by backwoods fiddlers, and the silences suggest the distance of these characters’ minds from ours today. They’re so used to the void that they don’t feel obliged to fill it with talk.
Treitz’s people, primarily brothers Henry and Francis Mellon (Timothy Morton and David Maloney), are concerned only about their immediate problems: how to sell off some extra acres; how to flirt among social betters; how to communicate what’s vital without embarrassing yourself in a letter when you’re illiterate. None of this seems cooked up by the screenwriters (Treitz and Kate Lyn Sheil) to make a point about then or now. Our view of the hills these broke brothers inhabit only expands a couple of times, first to show us their hard-won realization that they can’t clear 75 acres on their own and then to reveal the carnage that sickens Henry after his first Civil War battle. He sees the smoking bodies and, perhaps sensing the dangers of a life caught up in the kind of history they write books about, just runs back home.
We never learn his thoughts on slavery or secession. Henry lights out for the army just to have something to do, work through which he can, perhaps, gain distinction. He and Francis aren’t caught up in the issues of their day — they’re trying to get through them. Morton, as Henry, is movingly sullen and bristling as the less charming of the brothers, the one who briefly becomes convinced that there might be more for him beyond his cabin and overgrown spread.
Maloney’s rakish Francis, by contrast, has the wily confidence to talk up local women and to hit up their wealthy fathers with business propositions. The drama here is subdued and episodic, just key moments over a bad year; most of the characters’ big decisions occur offscreen, which contributes to the film’s sense of life and history as passing without ever demanding too much from us as individuals. This isn’t a film about the Civil War; it’s about the minds of white folks so removed from plantation life that they feel they have no stake in it at all. It’s not about back then — it’s about being.
Men Go to Battle
Directed by Zachary Treitz
Opens July 8, Anthology Film Archives