The last time No-Budget Nightmares encountered director Les Norris, it was in conjunction with 2004’s GORNO: AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY; a film he co-directed with Oliver Assiran. If memory serves me, I didn’t much care for it. (“A thoroughly awful film.” – Doug Tilley). But whatever reservations I had with that film (“It rings entirely hollow.” – Doug Tilley), I couldn’t fault its ambitions, and the production values were much higher than your average microbudget film. There was talent there, but was sadly wasted on some sub-Harmony Korine material.
Listeners to the No-Budget Nightmares podcast know that, since the review, we’ve developed a friendly relationship with both Les and Oliver, who were both nice enough to come on our anniversary episode and talk about that earlier film. They’ve proven themselves to be humble, hilarious guys and were extremely honest about the limitations of GORNO, and their reactions to our criticisms. During the interview, Les mentioned that he had recently been working on a very different sort of film, and was nice enough to pass along a copy of his most recent work: 2011’s THE FOG OF WAR.
Like GORNO, THE FOG OF WAR doesn’t shy away from “ripped-from-the-headlines” style drama, but instead of the cornucopia of awfulness that made that film such a chore, Norris has decided to instead focus on a single issue: post-traumatic stress disorder. Specifically, the post-traumatic stress felt by soldiers returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s a heavy subject, and Norris is helped immensely by the brave performance by Benhur Sito Barrero as John Millhouse, a former soldier who finds himself unable to deal with a return to civilian life. He’s plagued with visions of friends who died in combat, and spends his time attempting to dull his pain with drugs and alcohol while fighting off the insistent urge to end his own life.
John’s visions come in the form of ghostly, blood-soaked hallucinations involving his former comrades speaking to him directly. It’s off-putting, but an effective way to demonstrate his declining mental state. There are also a few moments of combat footage, but it’s unfortunately presented using some unconvincing green-screen effects. But much of the film simply involves John trying to live his life while his degrading mental state causes him to act erratically and violently, and it’s a testament to Norris that he doesn’t rely too heavily on visual trickery to get this across to the audience.
More troubling is the suggestion that John’s mental collapse is at least partially due to some odd surgical experiments he went through while in the army. We get some flashbacks which show a couple of doctors struggling with the moral issues surrounding the testing, but I feel like inserting this sort of conspiracy message dulls the edge of the central character study, and does a disservice to the very real epidemic of PTSD (suicide rates amongst soldiers rocketed 80% between 2004 and 2008) among returning army veterans. With John’s shaky metal state, it’s possible that these flashbacks are simply meant to be hallucinations brought on by John’s inability to deal directly with his trauma, but it’s still an unwelcome element in a film that otherwise seems dedicated to reality.
Thankfully, much of the film simply involves John trying to find his place in the world while reconnecting with old friends and family, and it’s quite engaging while doing so. Of course, all signs point towards an eventual massive mental break, but seeing the slow degradation of a traumatized mind is gripping. Unfortunately, the actual climax ends up being a let-down, with the film’s focus – oddly – being switched to John’s friend Pete (Mike Morena) for much of the final fifteen minutes. A strange decision after spending so much of our time in the company (and mind) of John.
I was recently lucky enough to see the documentary FREE THE MIND, which spends much of its running time examining the mental state of returning Iraq/Afghanistan veterans. These are men and women who return home plagued with guilt, fear and regret, and who have been provided minimal resources for helping them reintegrate into society and re-develop relationships with their loved ones. Much of THE FOG OF WAR treats this delicate subject with the respect it deserves, and Norris deserves credit for attempting to realistically portray a damaged individual without resorting to the usual movie cliches. A little trimming would do it a world of good, but what’s here remains unique and consistently captivating.
Three Nightmares out of Five – Shows Potential
One Nightmare – No-Budget Perfection, Two Nightmares – Shocking Success, Three Nightmares – Shows Potential, Four Nightmares – Not Much Fun, Five Nightmares – Please Kill Me
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