We gave it a B+
A gangly, bearded hipster named Francis (played by David Maloney, who looks like a hybrid of Domhnall Gleeson and Adam Driver) shuffles out of a grocery store onto the street and crosses paths with a couple of uniformed men. “Ladies,” he says with maximum snark. “Pardon?” they say. “I just called you ladies,” he replies, “and I’m proud of it.” He gets punched in the face, but you’ll have a smile on yours. Because this isn’t the modern-day Brooklyn of Lena Dunham or the neurotic Chicago of Joe Swanberg, but Kentucky in the mid-1800s. The shaggy, semi-focused but assuredly offbeat debut film from Zachary Treitz (co-written with House of Cards actress Kate Lyn Sheil) blends the Civil War with Mumblecore for one of the year’s most authentic trips in the way-back machine.
Not unlike February’s frightening and accomplished The Witch, which also felt so fresh and alive despite its hundreds-years-old setting, Men Go to Battle gains early points from its emphasis on place. In this case, it’s the broken-down farm of Francis and his sluggish brother Henry (Tim Morton), who basically exist in a state of total stasis, only motivated to play practical jokes on each other as the weeds grow up around them. The brothers bicker over Francis’ unwise purchase of mules: “What do we need two mules for?” “Cause I got a great deal.” Francis is the louder (and lout-ier) of the two, unafraid of shouting at a fancy dinner party to brazenly solicit buyers for their land. Henry, perpetually ill at ease, kisses a wealthy young woman (Rachel Korine) and when she rejects him, he run off into the woods, mortified, and joins the Union army.
The second half follows Henry onto the battlefield. If the movie’s Civil War reenactments (shot in raw handheld style by the talented cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz) look great for such a microbudget endeavor, that’s partly because the production crashed actual Civil War reenactments with the camera hidden in a potato sack. The spirit of scrappiness permeates the whole enterprise, even while Kentucky native Treitz resists the temptation to turn the film into a belittling parody of bumpkin existence. That’s true in scenes, lightly satirizing a cliché from prestige works like Cold Mountain or Ken Burns’ The Civil War, where the brothers write sentimental letters to each other, despite their illiteracy. Though the film never deeply transcends its basic thesis about the ramshackle lives of frustrated men, the final minutes are improbably touching for how they eschew uplift in favor of a more honest conclusion. Battlefields, both real and imagined, then and now, will always be filled with aimless dudes. B+