If we’ve learned anything about PTSD in cinema, it’s that the subjects of such a disease are embroiled in a war between reality and the violent world they left behind after shipping home. Thus is the premise of Blood Stripe, the feature directorial debut by Remy Auberjonois. While Remy’s father, Rene, casts a long shadow over his newfangled work, it’s clear that the talent for filmmaking rubbed off a bit. Blood Stripe, barring the limitations of a microbudget, is an assaulting and thoroughly exhausting look at the psychological effects of PTSD and a touching portrait on how some soldiers can’t ever just “go home.”
A Marine Corps sergeant (Kate Nowlin), half-jokingly referred to as “Our Sergeant,” has returned home from her third tour of duty in Afghanistan to her loving husband (Chris Sullivan) and extended family. Something is amiss though. The smallest things start to trigger violent images in her head, forcing her to lash out at those around her. So, she retreats deep into the Minnesota forest at a day camp she once attended as a child. Her relationship with the folks that hang around the camp lets her unravel, for better or worse.
One thing about Blood Stripe that really struck me as jarring is how it flip-flops between furious character study and something much more owing to the thriller genre. At one point, we see Nowlin’s sergeant digging deep down into her psyche as a congenial priest, Art (Rene Auberjonois), tries to access and relieve her anger. Things don’t work out so well when Art does that and the sarge violently lashes out like a couple of other times in the film. Through repetition, Remy Auberjonois is trying to make a point that violent fits of rage like the main character has are almost impenetrable and incurable. What the sarge has is something that can ruin lives, and as her no-name purports, is something that is interchangeable with so many other veterans. While this is a closed-off affair singling out one story of someone with PTSD, so many elements could be used in other stories. Whether you’re okay with Remy’s approach is up to you, of course.
The tone may get a bit muddled when a cheery church group arrives at the camp, but there’s something oblique about how the past tensions of the sarge’s life are never fully revealed. There’s a boiling undercurrent between her and her husband. After all, three tours? If she were in a loving marriage, wouldn’t there be some trepidation to keep going back to Afghanistan? The cinematography by Radium Cheung helps bolster Remy Auberjonois’ bleak outlook on the disease that is PTSD, too. Minnesota, a beautiful place with sprawling forests, now looks like a maze in which Nowlin’s sarge can’t escape from.
Luckily, the film is in the hands of someone working out their own kinks in their freshman project. Save for the ending that teeters too much on the over-ambitious and ambiguous side, Blood Stripe is very direct and assured in how it wants to tell this nameless sergeant’s story. Nowlin’s terrific acting aside, the film itself showcases a new voice in independent cinema. While that voice may not always be fresh, there’s more than enough good here for me to tell you to watch out for Auberjonois and Nowlin’s future work.