Shot on quasi-grainy digital at close range and evenly lit in autumnal tones, Zachary Treitz’s Civil War-set Men Go to Battle lacks the polish and bombast of much costlier historical dramas. Evoking the cloistered rawness of Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights and Robert Eggers’s The Witch, the film aims for revelatory intimacy within a commonplace past, but while its simulacrum of 1860s Kentucky is impressively textured in spite of a shoestring budget, Treitz’s preference for arm’s-length characterizations renders a convincingly made-over ensemble little more than another ornament on the landscape.
Central to Men Go to Battle’s threadbare story are brothers Francis (David Maloney) and Henry (Tim Morton), heirs to a family farm that’s fast approaching ruin. Maloney comes within range of fleshing out the enterprising Francis, who’s the kind of pest who swells with a faint nervous energy whenever he inadvertently recedes to the background of a social situation. The film’s earliest chapters contain controlled bits of character acting from Maloney that accentuate Francis’s unique mix of audacity and recklessness. Most amusing is a pair of conversations detailing his character’s efforts to make headway on the development and sale of his unneeded acreage—scenes in which, with swabs of spit always pooling up in his cheeks, Francis racks up strings of unwise financial compromises in record time.
Morton, on the other hand, wears the same callow look—specifically the look of a young adult who’s just inhaled reefer for the first time—through much of Men Go to Battle, which makes sense at first as a reflection of Henry’s internalized resolve in enduring his older brother’s blunt personality. But the actor’s remove becomes damaging when Treitz’s script (co-written with Kate Lyn Sheil, who appears in a bit role as one of the boys’ wealthier neighbors) places Morton’s character front and center in its second half. The bearded, seemingly cognitively inert Henry makes a misguided pass at the only unattached girl in town (Rachel Korine) after swigging some liquor outside an evening gala, wanders off into the night in disappointment, and somewhere down the line impulsively joins a Union battalion.
Treitz elides this initiation, focusing instead on Francis’s anxiety as he ponders Henry’s whereabouts for months, until suddenly the director drops us into an army encampment in Alabama. In terms of background personnel and prop elements, this set is comparably overdone alongside the unfussy rendering of provincial Kentucky life, but the extended section devoted to Henry’s service does feature a battle scene that’s symptomatic of Treitz’s smart thriftiness, if entirely superfluous: The handheld camera fixes on Henry’s visage as he marches alongside his fellow soldiers into battle, the hellishness of war implied only by the smoke and gunfire filling the frame around him.
Clumsily handwritten letters exchanged between Francis and Henry carry the brunt of dramatic development during these wearying wartime episodes, which effectively dulls the film’s portrait of the sibling bond even as it adds another tactile texture of the era. What’s left unclear, however, is the degree to which Men Go to Battle even intends to be a sibling portrait, or if it’s more invested in chronicling the impact of seismic change on unsuspecting rubes adrift from the national conversation, or rather if it’s just a cultural experiment in inserting contemporary indie fixtures (director Turner Ross also has a minor role) into a far-off milieu. The film’s aloofness renders these questions impermeable, though it’s too texturally exacting in its recreation of a transitory moment in U.S. history to register as a failure either.