Dir. Ross Katz
(2009, Not Rated, 77 min)
★ ★ ★ ★
This is a great film, and not what I expected it to be. I had anticipated a character study of Lt. Col. Michael Strobl, the taciturn man played in a reserved but deeply expressed performance by Kevin Bacon. To some degree it is about him — his journey, why he undertakes it, how it moves him. In the same way, it is also about the fallen marine he escorts, Chance Phelps, who we learn more about the closer we get to his final resting place. But the main character of the film is the death rite itself.
It is a segment of the war experience that is seldom shown and is depicted with great insight by the autobiographical script by Strobl and the direction of Ross Katz (who also co-wrote the screenplay). We too are made Phelps’s escorts, from the processing of his remains and personal effects to his lowering into the ground at the site of his grave. Katz shows us what great care is taken with his body and possessions, shown in tender closeups. He observes military rituals — the careful folding of flags, the loading onto and off of planes — in shots composed with visual symmetry that conveys order and a reverence for the dead. We are shown the subtle and often wordless reactions of civilians whom Strobl encounters along the way; they are demonstrative in their gestures of condolence, or exhibit the uneasy solemnity of wanting to pay respects in some way but not sure what to say or how to say it. There are beautiful scenes in airports that are shot simply but have undercurrents that run deep.
At times, Katz speaks volumes without needing a word of dialogue. Perhaps the film’s most affecting sequence shows Strobl driving behind the hearse carrying Phelps to the funeral home. They drive slowly, and other cars are shown passing on their left. But then the scene cuts to a wide shot of the road and shows that the two-car procession has grown into a multi-car caravan. It is a spontaneous act of shared grief, of communal mourning — a nation of the bereaved on a lonely desert road to carry a soldier home.