Beyond words. Flawless from the first frame to the last. Last year’s Blood Stripe is a cinematic masterpiece about the aftermath of war that was filmed entirely in Minnesota.
Once a year, a mainstream, big-budget military flick is released. These movies are large in scope, predictable, forgettable. A clutch of actors reenacts bloody battles with the requisite carnage. Then the audience is hit over the head with some element of conflict dragged out at home.
Photo by Ryan Swanson
Husband-and-wife team writer/director Remy Auberjonois and writer/star Kate Nowlin at a showing of Blood Stripe in Cook.
Blood Stripe avoids all these mistakes—for starters, by casting a woman as the main character. Our Sergeant (Kate Nowlin) is first seen in uniform at the airport, returning home from an off-screen war raging in Asia. Our Sergeant has survived multiple deployments, but she puts on a brave face as a homefront battle begins to unfold.
Her burly husband, Rusty (Chris Sullivan), throws her a party, but this normal return to civilian life turns sour when a male friend assaults her. Our Sergeant fights off the aggressor, but is perturbed that her husband did not step in when she needed him.
Rusty has grown apart from his wife, holding down the fort while she was off to war. He tinkers in the garage to cope with stress, while Our Sergeant processes her feelings by sharply increasing her alcohol consumption.
She realizes she needs to return to work, but walks off the job, claiming not to like it. Her exasperated husband is not happy with this turn of events, so Our Sergeant drives off to a summer camp where she spent time as a child, nimbly pivoting the film into Call of the Wild territory.
It is off-season at the camp, so the lakeside log cabins are minimally staffed, but Dot (Rusty Schwimmer) takes her in, welcoming the extra help. Our Sergeant soaks up the solitude, drowning her pain in scrubbing floors.
But her healing solitude is threatened when the camp learns that an unknown busload of people will be arriving. To prepare for these guests, walleye is acquired from local love interest, The Fisherman (Tom Lipinski).
Remy Auberjonois made all the right decisions in this directorial debut. The film wisely does not linger on the struggles of Our Sergeant and Rusty’s marriage. The journey is inside Our Sergeant’s mind. We see her slowly start to slip away, mentally and physically. Early on, she is well coifed as she picks up her C-Bag with an airline tag still on it (a minor military detail that the filmmakers got right). Only in private does she begin to unravel.
Auberjonois cast his real-life wife, Nowlin (the two also share screenwriting credit), as well as his (very recognizable) father, Rene Auberjonois, as Pastor Art, the leader of a church group at the camp. Auberjonois’ performance is a little over-the-top, but there is a reason for that, which is later revealed. Art observes the sulky Our Sergeant, but does not reach out to help her at first. She comes to him only when it is right for her.
Nowlin acts her heart out, portraying a strong woman, gruffly dealing with the emotional fallout of her life, but also a vulnerable woman who needs help. Nowlin plays Our Sergeant with an opaqueness that she only occasionally drops to let us see her past it.
Sullivan embodies Rusty as a three-dimensional character, who can pull off shouting things like, “You left a good job!” even as his wife is fading into numbness.
Blood Stripe cleverly leaves some loose ends. A traditional happy ending would have felt tacked on. Ambiguity makes for a more satisfying denouement.
Our Sergeant always wanted to know what it was like on the frozen lake during winter. “It is beautiful,” The Fisherman tells her. Audiences will say the same about this exquisite production.