Blood Stripe (2016) Film Review from the 22nd Annual Los Angeles Film Festival, a movie directed by Remy Auberjonois, starring Kate Nowlin, Rene Auberjonois, Chris Sullivan, Tom Lipinski, and Rusty Schwimmer.
The subject of war is one that has, to say nothing of plaguing humanity, captured the imagination of filmmakers for a long time. The battles, the explosions, the masses of humanity intent on each other’s destruction tend to make for spectacles worthy of the screen. But if you were to make a film based on the consequences of war, it would tell a very different story: untold suffering inflicted on civilians and vicious brutality visited upon soldiers, the memories of which stay with their victims long after the bloodshed has ended and others have forgotten. In an move that is especially commendable for a first-time filmmaker, Remy Auberjonois focuses on this less-explored aspect of war in Blood Stripe, albeit with mixed results.
The movie rejects numerous war film conventions, with it most notably following a female rather than male veteran. Identified only as “Our Sergeant” (Nowlin), the protagonist is of the lucky few who lived to see her home and family again. But try as she might, the specter of war hangs over her: she is emotionally withdrawn from her old surroundings and feels threatened when her loved ones try to express physical intimacy. Her condition culminates in her assaulting a family friend who startles her, forcing her boyfriend (Sullivan) to restrain her. Reluctant to own up to her fragile state of mind and open up to her family about it, Sarge flees town for the one place she feels at ease: an old lakeside camp from her childhood.
At first, Sarge appears to have found the solace she needs. Dot (Schwimmer), the apparent overseer of the grounds, puts her to work, fulfilling any residual sense of duty she still harbors. The relative isolation of the grounds gives her the space she needs from others. As was bound to happen, however, things fall apart. A group of camp regulars arrive, disrupting Sarge’s solitude. The group is friendly enough, with Art (Auberjonois) being particularly gregarious, but the risk is too much for Sarge. Even more troubling, she finds herself crossing paths with two intimidating strangers who blare harsh-sounding rock as they drive by and are seen dumping trash bags filled with something large into the lake. When it seems the men have finally cornered a terrified Sarge, they disappear and are never seen again, the implication being they were just a hallucination.
This scene illustrates the film’s biggest shortcoming. Viewers know that Sarge is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and how she came to suffer from this condition, but we don’t know the significance of her suffering and it’s symptoms. Yes, we know it’s significant in the context of the movie for Sarge and we know it’s significant in the context of real life for society in general and veterans in particular, but we don’t know why it’s significant in the context of how the viewer relates to the character. This is because, like she does with her family members, Sarge remains elusive even as we understand what she is going through. One could even say that the movie is too successful in achieving what it set out to do: by so strongly conveying the alienating effect of Sarge’s condition, the audience is never given a chance to connect with her on an emotional level, effectively leaving us to play the part of her friends and loved ones and watch in distress as she succumbs to the agony of her disorder.
By no means is Blood Stripe a failure. It boldly tells a story that not many other films have told and bravely attempts to faithfully portray a disorder that is still clouded by many misconceptions in the popular imagination. The cast members turn in authentic performances, with Auberjonois in particular standing out with his charismatic turn as Art. Yet for all this, the emotional impact from Blood Stripe is as transient as Our Sergeant’s phantom pursuers.
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