Despite the liberal leanings of Hollywood, there is a strange symbiosis that exists when it comes to the military. A romantic fetishizing of sorts, that is often, both scathingly critical and overtly venerable. Much of that dichotomy, I think, exists because of the inherent duality of war. It’s violent, tragic, and relentless but conflict resolution has a built in narrative. Some of cinema’s greatest efforts have been war films like Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Saving Private Ryan just to name a few. There is a definite fascination with it all and there’s no denying that something about the environment is captivating, as evidenced by numerous famous photographs taken throughout the decades. This isn’t a movie that glorifies war, but does a good job preserving unquestionable respect and earning the title Thank You for Your Service.
This was an important role for Miles Teller. After a phenomenal, star-making performance in Whiplash (2014), his role in the Divergent series as an annoying brown noser didn’t elevate his stock and his wooden performance as Reed Richards in the disastrous Fantastic Four (2015) reboot sent his career in the wrong direction. Subsequent role (better script) selection got him back on the right track and, along with Only the Brave, Teller has two solid dramatic roles in theaters for 2017. He did a lot to redeem my faith in him with his effort in this film. Playing Adam Schumann wasn’t an easy role. We’re talking about a decorated war hero, father, husband and (let’s not forget) young man who is dealing with severe post traumatic stress disorder and survivor’s guilt. Teller has a certain stoic quality that masked much of his internal torment well, but in moments when the vail began to slip he demonstrated the intensity and flair for emotional depth which made him a star in the first place.
Beulah Koale was fantastic in the primary supporting role as Solo and most of the film’s working character dynamics and plot mechanics are directly tied to his progressive downward spiral. He’s was a member of Schumann’s group of soldiers and a close friend who is also suffering from PTSD and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease football players get from too many hits to the head, commonly known as CTE. His performance was frighteningly good, capturing a wide range of emotional highs-and-lows as Solo is forced to navigate everyday life, with a baby on the way, once his ability to re-enlist is stripped from him. Koale’s powerful and evocative portrayal, should put him on the industry map and fast track him to some more prominent roles. He may, and likely will, get overlooked by the end of year awards committees, but his execution was certainly among the best I’ve seen so far this year.
Ronna Kress assembled a good core cast even though it wasn’t particularly strong on big name talent aside from Teller. Haley Bennett has quickly become a recognizable face since her breakout role as the title character in The Haunting of Molly Hartley (2008) and she was good here once again as Schumann’s wife Saskia, opposite Teller. Although the film’s focus isn’t solely on their relationship, Bennett captured the sympathy and frustration of a spouse desperately attempting to bridge the gap with her partner. Had the film’s central aim been that relationship, I get the feeling we could have seen a deeper, more powerful performance from her that would have garnered more recognition. Joe Cole brought a lot to the table as well playing Billy, the third and most unstable of Schumann’s group of friends. Confronted with unexpected turmoil upon his return from deployment, he unravels faster than his two counterparts which leads to a shorter but more emotionally cutting portrayal. Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the flashes of superb acting by Amy Schumer. It’s a far cry from her other roles so far, playing the widow of a soldier and friend of the Schumanns. There was a lot on her plate, but didn’t bite off more than she could chew and wasn’t forced to carry the film either which allowed her to come in under the radar. She was almost unrecognizable (in a good way) and I think many new opportunities will come her way after this quality performance.
Jason Hall, the Academy Award winning writer of American Sniper, took his first crack at directing and did a more than serviceable job. He was wise not to load too much on any one of his cast members and in return he got strong and diverse performances from all of them. This film wasn’t really exceptional in any one area, but came together nicely as a finished product. It’s narrative driven and the focus isn’t on the war, but on the after effects and the obstacles soldiers face when returning home from conflict zones. Aside from a handful of scenes, there isn’t even much of the war in the film and that’s a good thing in this case. Taking the road less travelled added the attention to the serious, cannibalizing nature of mental health problems for these soldiers and avoided the trappings of becoming just another of many similar films. To me, this was more in line with The Messenger (2009) which was a cerebral and emotional approach to the impact of war on the combatants once they leave the battlefield. Hall also penned the screenplay for this film, based on the book by David Finkle, while showing than he can hold his own behind the camera. He’ll have plenty of opportunities to do both moving forward now that he has established a strong foundation in one genre of filmmaking.
Recommendation: For those with family members or friends serving in the armed forces, this film should be enlightening, especially those looking for some kind of deeper understanding. It’s not an action packed movie, so keep that in mind, but it’s paced well and doesn’t drag. Those looking for a date movie, this one could work. I’d shy away from it if you’re looking for romance, but it does have a heart.