“Men Go to Battle” presents mid-19th-century American life as a series of constant, arduous struggles, be they at home or on the battlefield. First-time helmer Zachary Treitz’s assured Civil War saga (which earned him an emerging director prize at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival) is a haunting, mournful mood piece about two brothers whose close-knit relationship frays under the strain of proximity, personal and financial disappointments, and the arrival of the Union army. Striking in its evocation of a demanding time and place, this intimate drama about individual and national transformation heralds the arrival of an arresting new filmmaking voice, and should cast a spell when it settles into limited theatrical release this July.
Scruffy, red-bearded Henry (Tim Morton) and lanky Francis (David Maloney) are brothers cohabitating in a ramshackle family farm in the backwoods province of Small’s Corner, Ken., in 1861. That homestead includes dozens of acres of land in such overgrown disrepair that Francis — who erroneously fancies himself the thinker of the duo — can’t sell it, thereby putting both men’s survival in jeopardy as a harsh winter approaches. Not that their dire circumstances compel them to behave in a particularly anxious manner; Francis spends plenty of time acting a fool, from waking his sibling up in the morning with a non-lethal rifle shot, to goofily trying, and failing, to mount a donkey that he impulsively purchased, much to Henry’s chagrin, given their scant monetary reserves.
Working from a script co-written by Kate Lyn Sheil, Treitz lays out his twosome’s dynamics in brief, serio-comic episodes that flow jaggedly forward, capturing their underlying fears and frustrations in curt exchanges and nonchalant glances. At a community gathering, Francis’ failure to procure assistance from a wealthy local is followed by his falling into a puddle. His feelings of powerlessness and alienation are further underlined when, later, he visits a house where a doctor is holding an upscale party, and his face stares, longingly, at the refined men and women who, no matter their nearness, inhabit a social sphere far removed from his own.
Francis travels to that physician’s home seeking care for Henry’s wounded hand, which has been severed thanks to a bit of drunken rabble-rousing gone awry. Though accidental, this incident seems the byproduct of unspoken brotherly resentments. For Henry — quiet due to a lack of eloquence, but more levelheaded than Francis — such bitterness is compounded by the shame and disappointment he feels when, after sharing a flirtatious conversation with prim Betsy Small (Rachel Korine), he kisses her, only to have her respond with tears over receiving her first smooch from someone (lowly) like him.
Having reached his breaking point, Henry promptly disappears, and his subsequent letters inform Francis that he’s joined the Union cavalry. This turn of events, which shifts the narrative’s focus from Francis to Henry, does little to alter the patient pace and despondent mood struck by “Men Go to Battle.” For reasons at least partially related to budgetary constraints, director Treitz and cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz opt for cozy handheld close-ups, whose spartan beauty engenders intense empathy for their protagonists. The filmmakers’ precise compositions have the effect of binding us, emotionally as well as physically, to these lonely men, even as Francis and Henry’s own propinquity — epitomized by them sharing a tiny bed — puts an increasingly untenable strain on their relationship.
Aside from a number of folk songs, Treitz eschews a traditional score in favor of an enveloping natural soundscape — all floorboards creaking underfoot, shoes clacking on stone walkways, glass jars rustling, and kindling popping in roaring fires. Married to austere imagery that expresses the cold, creaky desolation and hardship of the Kentucky (and, later Alabama) countryside, those aesthetics enhance the film’s experiential potency. As the months pass and the men’s paths begin pointing in the same direction (albeit with twists that suggest they’ll never again lead wholly parallel lives), the film achieves an almost hallucinatory historical verisimilitude, with its well-worn costumes and lamplight-illuminated abodes — as well as its terse dialogue and rough-around-the-edges accents — conspiring to create a world that feels bracingly real, and yet filtered through a hazy dream.