Zachary Treitz's debut feature, "Men Go to Battle," is a Civil War story in indie miniature, a tale of struggling sibling Kentucky farmers whose bond fractures over the course of a year as the conflict encroaches. This isn't high-toned period melodrama about the sweep of history and mythological wartime pluck. It's a smudgy, handheld trek into corners of hickdom and survival that feels contemporary — illiterate prankster brothers Henry (a terrific Tim Morton) and Francis Mellon (David Maloney) could just as easily be mumblecore anti-heroes — and yet also unfolds like an unearthed diary entry from a hardscrabble past.
The story is bare. What girds it all is grasping that obnoxious Francis, who wants to sell the land, is impulsive, while watchful Henry is practical and sensitive. Though Francis acts like the bold-move guy, it's Henry who leaves to join the Union Army after an embarrassing encounter with a wealthy man's daughter (Rachel Korine).
The close grit of Brett Jutkiewicz's cinematography is an unadorned plus: Blue dawns carry a bracing chill, night fires look inadequately warm and candlelight squeezes every indoor space into forced intimacy. Treitz, who wrote the movie with indie stalwart Kate Lyn Sheil (who also has a small role), is after something earthy and small-bore here, the contours of an epic shrunk into low-key swatches.
"Men Go to Battle" isn't always effective, in that way DIY filmmaking sometimes irritates by deliberately avoiding "moments." But as an offbeat lens through which to view an oft-mined era, it has a quiet pull.
'Men Go to Battle'
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles