In director Jason Hall’s Thank You for Your Service, warfare is depicted only in brief glimpses—fragmented and chaotic, like memories. The film primarily focuses on soldiers Adam Schumann (Miles Teller) and Solo Aieti (Beulah Koale) after they return home to Kansas following their final tour of duty and how the effects of PTSD cause an endless string of complications in their personal and professional lives. As with many other works that have tackled such subject matter, the film is admirably frank in its depiction of lingering trauma but too often struggles to capture its more ineffable qualities.
On the surface, the film is acutely observant of the often unbridgeable gap between soldiers and the world that awaits them back home. Though his wife, Saskia (Haley Bennett), is sympathetic to the emotional baggage he now carries, Adam still feels the unspoken pressure to return to normalcy: to get a job, to play with his children, to regain emotional and physical intimacy with his wife. Where Saskia simply wants him to unload his war stories on her to help him stabilize, repeatedly saying how tough she is, Adam is immobilized by the guilt of things he both did and didn’t do in his latest tour.
Adam is especially haunted by the memory of dropping a wounded soldier, Michael Emory (Scott Haze), as he was carrying him down a set of stairs following an ambush. Despite a bullet to the head, Michael miraculously survived the assault, but for Adam, the taste of Michael’s blood as it dripped into his mouth is something he can’t shake. The graphic specificity of the memory, as portrayed in the film’s opening sequence, makes Adam’s trauma all the more haunting, but Teller is tasked with much of the heavy lifting throughout. The actor has to articulate the lasting effects that this event has on his character through physical tics that come to feel like too much posturing, and only go so far in conveying the extent of Adam’s mental strife.
Thank You for Your Service is most effective in moments where its characters deal with their inner demons head on. Scenes of Adam and Solo reminiscing over a beer or attempting to navigate a broken V.A. system in order to get the psychological care they need express the sense of hopelessness and entrapment many veterans face upon returning home far more honestly than the film’s more sensationally pitched expressions of trauma. Adam and Solo’s friendship isn’t unlike those we’ve seen in dozens of war-themed films, but the depths of these men’s psychological wounds more frankly reveal the relentless bleakness of their future than most films about PTSD.
Only when Adam and Solo are hanging out alone or with their other military buddy, Will (Joe Cole), can they discuss their paralyzing fears and guilt, as well as their suicidal thoughts, which they conceal from friends and family. How they become their own family with bonds of shared experience exudes a restrained realism that escapes the lengthy subplot that has a desperate Solo looking to score ecstasy and involving himself in a criminal underworld of dogfighting and arms dealing. These scenes feel overcooked because they prioritize the suspense of his ordeal over its psychological and emotional dimensions. The nature of the suspense here, as well as in the depiction of a near-suicide attempt, is troublesome in the ways it uses a character’s otherwise sincerely developed mental anguish as a source for cheap thrills.
Ironically, it’s during these conventionally edge-of-your-seat scenarios that Thank You for Your Service becomes increasingly plodding and forced in its progression toward an uncomfortably feel-good ending. Throughout, Hall successfully conveys the shameful lack of resources and training at V.A. facilities and how the post-war experience for veterans is complicated by their families’ inability to grasp the scope of their psychological despair. But like the harrowing memories of battle that open and close the film, the moments that are most contemplative of the veteran experience only appear in glimpses, so that the guilt and shame that Adam and Solo carry with them remain nearly as inscrutable to us as it does to their families.