Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Nov 09, 2020 5:14 pm 
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Moral doubts and physical peril

Recon, which its distributors are introducing to the public with a one-night special event for Veterans Day in major US chain theaters on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020, is a new movie adapted from Richard Bausch's 2008 World War II novel Peace. "Based on a true event," the book is "a dense, lyrical meditation on human nature and war, its prose pared back to the quotidian bone and then crafted into something resonant and piercing," as a powerful Guardian review by A.L. Kennedy describes it.* As that review points out, Bausch is a contemporary of Tobias Wolff and Richard Ford and was a friend of Raymond Carver. The story recounts the ordeal of four American soldiers in the mountains near Casino in Italy on a single long day in the grim winter of 1944.

At the outset these soldiers suddenly witness a deeply troubling event. As a peasant's cart approaches on the road the platoon sergeant, Reece (Tyler Hynes), has it turned over and this reveals a German soldier who shoots and kills two of the men, Hopewell (Mitch Ainley) and Walberg (Chris Crema), before he is in turn shot and killed by platoon member Robert Marson (Alexander Ludwig). There is also his German whore, who is unarmed. Without a thought, Reece coldly executes her. When the platoon returns to base camp the soldiers show outrage and confusion at Reese's murder of an innocent civilian, and know his claim to the company commander, Captain Rogers (Lochlyn Munro) that she was killed in the crossfire is a lie. One of the men, Asch, a "cynical Jew," asks if it's really the Nazis who are crazy, or their commanding officer. (As Asch, with his edge and teasing banter, Chris Brochu winds up effortlessly engaging our deepest sympathy. The others are harder to like.)

Capt. Rogers tells the sergeant to get out and get him some intelligence. In the circumstances, Reece breaks up the platoon, sending four men, whom we follow hereafter (with partly dreamlike flashbacks evoking the men's troubled memories), on a punitive and likely suicidal reconnaissance mission up on snowy roads into the mountains. As their guide he sends with them an elderly local partisan called Angelo (Franco Nero) whose loyalties they cannot be sure of, while they seem to be followed and picked off by an enemy sniper.

In this grim setting the first thing that strikes us is how hostile the soldiers are toward each other (and how childish; but they are very young) - behavior and mindsets infinitely more dangerous in the treacherous setting. While there is some of the poetry and philosophical voiceover pondering of Malick's Thin Red Line, this is also a war film without the genre's usual drama and explosiveness. It delivers its shocks and killings with stunningly unembellished coldness.

With Angelo as their not very trusted location advisor, now Corporal Marson, who has an earnest and rather detached quality and a bad blister (or worse) on his foot, is the man in charge of the reconnaissance unit, and the protagonist: it's his musings we hear in voiceover from time to time throughout the film. With him are the redneck bigot, Joyner (Sam Keeley), the athletic Heisman (RJ Fetherstonhaugh), and the clumsy, wise-cracking Boston-area Jew, Asch (Chris Brochu). Reese keeps the radioman, Troutman (Chase Sander) for himself. "A nice long walk has a way of settling things for a man," he says. Frightened, cold, and exhausted, the four are predestined to come into conflict. Asch and Joyner's squabbling and taunting of each other, which keep them occupied and infuriate Angelo, continue as they have to cross a very long, single-file suspension bridge that would be scary at any time, and now is obviously an excellent target for snipers. The old Italian is forced to go first, and then the others, very gingerly, follow. It goes well. Or, it does till a taunt from Asch is answered with a gross gesture by Heisman.

After that the trajectory of the action is more and more teasing, painful, and oppressive. This sometimes verges on being a horror movie. There tends to be more physicality and less musing than there would be in a novel whose ostensible focus is the moral complexity of war and the impossibility of resolving it; but for those in search of an actioner, this is not the film to watch. For sheer Beckettian last-ditch grimness, though, it's not bad at all - and certainly not without a satisfying, if niggling, final element of redemption.

Asch and Joyner each go through a transformation, in which Chris Brochu and Sam Keeley both shine. The job is harder for Keeley. Franco Nero is perfect in his somehow undemanding role: he hasn't much to do but seem decent and put upon, then angry, then desperate. His role seems largely passive. It's never quite clear if he's pretending to understand less English than he really does, or perhaps just reluctant to enter into dialogue that is already so contentious among the Americans. His unsubtitled musings in Italian are thrown away on the anglophone audience, but the damned complexity of war is embodied in the young Americans' suspicions of a man who seems so decent. Nero, now 79, was discovered by John Huston and has worked for Luis Buñuel, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Claude Chabrol, and Quentin Tarantino. He's still out there in the cold. . .

The film was shot in British Columbia in wintertime in chilly desaturated color, almost blue-gray. The director, helming his first feature here, for which he also wrote the screenplay adaptation, was co-director with Bill Guttentag of the Oscar-winning 2003 short film Twin Towers about two brothers, a firefighter and a policeman, who perished in 9/11. This is serious stuff, but it is too harsh and minimalist to satisfy Veterans Day celebrants in search of simple uplift.

Recon, 95 mins., debuted in the Oct. 2019 Austin Film Festival. On Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020 the film is scheduled to play on almost 350 screens, but the presenters are planning to add smaller theater chains to the list and expect 500 on the night of the event. It will also be made available on VOD Wednesday, November 11th. Limited US theatrical release follows starting Friday, Nov. 13, 2020.

*See also the New York Times review of the novel by Ben Ben MacIntyre.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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