OK, I get why this failed in general release, but that doesn’t mean it is a bad film. Doesn’t mean it is a great film either, but it has a lot to say and does it relatively well. It had two main liabilities.
First the script is far too obvious, never letting the action impart the meaning. Castelli’s choices in adapting Fountain’s novel are clumsy in many ways, never quite leaving the paper medium behind. As a first script it isn’t bad, but it should have been doctored by more experienced writers before it hit screen.
Second, this was a small film done on a huge scale. The story really would have worked better as an indie release without all the pressure to be a hit, despite having Ang Lee (Life of Pi) attached to direct. This happens to small, intimate plays moved to Broadway as well… some things require a different audience relationship to work. If you open the space, or refine the experience, too much, it feels fake. Lee also, though I didn’t get to see it, wanted to try new tech with this film. In its “preferred” cut it is done with high frame rates to break down the fourth wall and to make it feel more like a football halftime show. Artistically I understand that, but apparently it was very off-putting to those who did get to see it.
Those aspects aside, there is an important story here. It is also important to realize that is taking place in 2004, long after the 1980 recognition of PTSD as an issue, but long before the 2013 change in its classification from an anxiety disorder to a trauma disorder. How people viewed themselves or understood their issues, not to mention how others viewed them, was very different.
The movie isn’t about PTSD directly. It is about the hypocrisy of war and the hypocrisy of civilians when dealing with soldiers. But PTSD has a role to play both in effect and as an opportunity to see the past.
In his first major role as Billy, Joe Alwyn is sweet, tough, and galvanized by his experiences though not entirely willing to admit that at the top of the tale. It is a quiet performance, but with some nice layers. Kristen Stewart (Cafe Society) as his sister is mostly a throwaway as a performance, despite having an integral role. Similarly, Vin Diesel (The Last Witch Hunter) didn’t quite have the impact he should have. Even Steve Martin (Home) is a side issue, though an important catalyst. The only other solid role in the film is Garrett Hedlund’s (Pan) Sargent Dime. Hedlund does a great job performing his duty and being completely honest about the realities of that. It is also the dark humor he brings to the screen that saves this film from bogging down.
I love Lee’s approach to film. He loves his characters and he is always willing to let the story breathe and fill out in its own time. Lynn is far from his best film, but in a country that has been in non-stop war for 16 years, it has some important things to say… even if most people aren’t ready to hear them yet.