This Is a Movie Review: The Writer of ‘American Sniper’ Says ‘Thank Your for Your Service’ with a Deep Dive Into PTSD

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CREDIT: Francois Duhamel/DreamWorks Pictures/Universal

This review was originally posted on News Cult in October 2017.

Starring: Miles Teller, Haley Bennett, Beulah Koale, Amy Schumer, Joe Cole, Keisha Castle-Hughes

Director: Jason Hall

Running Time: 108 Minutes

Rating: R for PTSD Hallucinations and the Resultant Anger

Release Date: October 27, 2017

When American Sniper racked up over $300 million at the domestic box office, it wasn’t shocking just because it featured zero comic book superheroes or animated talking animals, but also because of how focused it was on the homefront. Its Iraq-set sequences were generally not very memorable; instead, its main purpose for existing was to bring to the fore the scourge of post-traumatic stress disorder on U.S. soil. I doubt that Thank You for Your Service, written and directed by Sniper screenwriter Jason Hall, will rake in similarly huge bucks, but it has learned the right lessons from its predecessor of where to place its focus.

Thank You is primarily concerned with the perpetually overburdened Department of Veterans Affairs, which is trying to offer psychiatric help for its returning soldiers, but the soonest it can offer appointments is 12 weeks, but sometimes no earlier than nine months. For vets like Adam (Teller), Aieti (Koale), and Will (Cole), that is just as life-threatening as combat in Iraq. This might not sound like the most rousing of cinematic premises, but the way it plays out is quite thrilling. PTSD episodes exist as disorienting hallucinations that are the more surreal for just how minimally they depart from reality. A fallen comrade suddenly appears and seems to be perfectly corporeal but then lets out a blood-curdling scream, inciting a burst of uncontrollable violence. It plays out as horror that will hit too close to home for many.

Anchoring the whole endeavor and preventing it from becoming too overwhelming is Teller, who has developed a knack for playing characters with plenty of hustle who take on much more weight than anyone has asked them to. Adam’s burden is less PTSD and more survivor’s guilt. He struggles to atone for a squadmate he attempted to save but who ended up partially paralyzed, and he can barely face the widow of a fellow sergeant who died after taking his place on one coincidental day. That he ultimately does face his fears provides some hope that maybe this system is not entirely broken. As a narrative machine, Thank You for Your Service is a little creaky, but it pulls through with astutely observed interactions between soldier and soldier or soldier and spouse, and brings it all home with a gentle catharsis.

Thank You for Your Service is Recommended If You Like: American Sniper, Jacob’s Ladder

Grade: 3 out of 5 PTSD Hallucinations

This Is a Movie Review: Could Kirsten Dunst Shock Wood if ‘Woodshock’ Could Be Good? (Spoiler Alert: It’s Not)

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CREDIT: A24

This review was originally posted on News Cult in September 2017.

Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Pilou Asbæk, Joe Cole, Lorelei Linklater, Jack Kilmer

Directors: Kate and Laura Mulleavy

Running Time: 100 Minutes

Rating: R for Drugs, I Guess?

Release Date: September 22, 2017 (Limited)

The headline for this review was originally going to be “‘Woodshock’ Strands Kirsten Dunst in a Bunch of Random Images,” but then I decided that it would be much more appropriate to go with something nonsensical so as to keep with the spirit of the film. The directorial debut from fashion designer sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy feels like the creation of people who have never seen a movie before and only understand the medium theoretically. It essentially amounts to an academic (or anti-academic) exercise to determine the meaning of “montage.”

The plot, such as there is one, follows the perpetually on-edge life of Theresa (Dunst) and her husband Keith (Pilou Asbæk). She has recently lost her mother and is probably suffering from depression. They run a marijuana dispensary together … I think. People’s jobs and relationships to each other are not always clear. There is a tragic accident that neither the characters nor the film can come to terms with in any meaningful way.

At some point, according to the synopsis, Theresa ingests an especially potent mind-altering substance. I genuinely do not remember this, though, probably because there is no noticeable shift in the nature of the film at any point. There are some hallucinatory images, a few of which manage to be striking regardless of the context (most notably a house hovering a few feet above the ground amidst a shock of light). But if the drug has any noticeable effect on Theresa, it is perhaps in how it makes her suddenly unable to take a shower or bath. Good lord, there is a huge chunk of the running time devoted to Kirsten Dunst standing still in front of the bathroom mirror.

It is worth wondering why Woodshock fails so spectacularly while similarly subjective and inscrutable works like the oeuvre of David Lynch manage to be so powerfully affecting. Perhaps it is because even if it is not clear what the meaning of the latter is, it is not hard to intuit that there is some meaning. Maybe the Mulleavys do have something worthwhile to say, but they do not yet know how to get that across in cinematic terms.

Woodshock is Recommended If You Like: 2001, but like, on earth; Upstream Color, minus the auteurist bona fides

Grade: 1.5 out of 5 Pleasant Summer Evenings