Made with passion, integrity and skill, "Blood Stripe" is American independent filmmaking at its most effective. It takes on a difficult subject and treats it with an honesty that can't help but capture us from start to finish.
The film's title references the scarlet band found on the trouser leg of Marine Corps officer uniforms, but it has a metaphorical message as well, a way to talk about the mark combat inevitably leaves on those who go through it.
And while we've certainly had films concerned with post-traumatic stress disorder before, they're almost never done with the kind of spareness and directness we find here, and rarer still do they have a woman as a protagonist.
The heart of "Blood Stripe's" success is a superb performance, unflinching and all-in, from Kate Nowlin as a Marine identified only as Our Sergeant.
Though unnamed, she is a woman so enveloped in the culture that even her first innocuous words ("I'm catching transport at 0800") indicate how thoroughly a military person she is.
Nowlin co-wrote the script with veteran actor Remy Auberjonois, making an expert directing debut here, and it’s no exaggeration to say the intensity of their joint commitment to this project is felt everywhere.
The sergeant is introduced coming home to her small Minnesota town after her third tour of duty, having served in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
But though this return is so habitual that she and her burly husband Rusty (Chris Sullivan) banter before they exchange hugs, this time, something is different. Though she tells Rusty, "I'm good," it's clear she's not.
It's not just that the sergeant explodes at her own homecoming party, that she begins to run obsessively, has trouble sleeping and takes to mowing the lawn in the middle of the night. It's all of the above.
For everything put together forms a portrait of a woman flailing, someone who is skating on thinner ice than anyone wants to acknowledge. We feel and fear for her, and for those around her.
Rusty, of course, notices most of all, but he is tentative in talking about it, apprehensive about the unknown. When he finally brings up a VA hospital visit, the sergeant hits him with this: There's a 129-day wait for an appointment.
Unable to sit still, the sergeant gets in her car and just goes, ending up at lakeside Camp Vermillion in northern Minnesota, a place she seems to remember from her childhood. It's off-season, with hardly anyone around — which is fine with the sergeant, who seems to find the lake's tranquillity calming.
And when caretaker Dot (the accomplished Rusty Schwimmer) admits there is a lot of work to be done, the sergeant, looking for an outlet for her ferocious need for activity, opts to stay. "Nobody," she says, "ever drowned in sweat."
Though a church retreat occurs, led by a loquacious minister (Rene Auberjonois, the director’s father), and more melodramatic elements surface as well, it is first and foremost character and not plot that keeps you involved here.
One of the wise choices co-creators Auberjonois and Nowlin made is never telling us specifically what it was that happened to Our Sergeant to cause her breakdown. We see scars on her back and the scars on her mind, but "Blood Stripe" is wise enough to know that causes cannot be pigeonholed.
The same thing can be said about "Blood Stripe's" entire dramatic arc, which neither soft-pedals nor exaggerates her condition. The question is not so much how but rather can her situation be resolved. This is what happens to people, the film eloquently says, and seeing it this way is powerful stuff.
Running time: 1 hour 32 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s Music Hall, Beverly Hills