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The fog of war is no match for the domestic tempest experienced by an Army medic back home in Fort Bliss, writer-director Claudia Myers’ well-observed and endearing account of one woman grappling with allegiances to her fellow soldiers and her estranged 5-year-old son.
Starring Michelle Monaghan in a demanding role that further brings out a dark side revealed last year on True Detective, this character-driven drama offers up a unique distaff viewpoint on a subject usually reserved for men, underlining the burdens placed on mothers torn between their country and their family. Though it drags in spots and doesn’t convince on all fronts, Bliss is nonetheless a worthy minor addition to a canon of homefront films ranging from The Best Years of Our Lives to Coming Home to the recent The Hurt Locker and The Messenger.
Picked up by Phase 4 Films at the Cannes market and winner of the Audience Award at this year’s Champs-Elysees Film Festival, the independently financed production should see modest theatrical returns and decent numbers on VOD, with Monaghan’s strong performance bringing in a reasonable small-screen audience. Overseas distributors specializing in genre and art house fare also will take notice.
After a blood-soaked prologue in which combat doctor Maggie Swan (Monaghan) tries to save a soldier in Afghanistan from being torn apart by an RPG, we cut to the titular U.S. Army post in Texas, where she returns for what’s meant to be an indefinite stay. But as many like-minded movies have shown, coming home is never as easy as one imagines, and Maggie quickly realizes that her son, Paul (the excellent Oakes Fegley), has grown up without her, remaining attached to his dad (Ron Livingston of The Conjuring) and his new girlfriend (Emmanuelle Chriqui).
Forcing the boy to live with her in a cramped apartment on the base, and then in a rented house that she barely attempts to decorate, Maggie reveals herself to be a less-than-adequate mom, growing easily frustrated when Paul misbehaves while unable to give the boy the TLC he clearly needs. On the other hand, as a career soldier training other medics for their upcoming tours of duty, Maggie is top-notch, winning points with her hardheaded commander (Freddy Rodriguez) while gaining the trust of a volatile sergeant (Gbenga Akinnagbe) along with the other members of her squad.
Although the conflict between personal and professional obligations is nothing new on screen, Myers brings some originality to the table by presenting a woman who simply doesn’t have the motherly instincts society expects of her, but excels in tasks that are neither for the weak nor faint of heart. In the macho world of the armed forces — and one that the director studied firsthand in various institutional films — this means that Maggie is somewhat of a pariah, while a series of flashbacks reveal that even on the field of battle, females remain subject to the whims of their male counterparts.
Anchored by Monaghan’s gritty and well-tempered turn, with the actress purposely made down to look like a tomboyish servicewoman, Fort Bliss offers up a convincingly gloomy portrait of certain unseen aspects of military life. Details like Maggie bringing Paul to day care before the sun rises, deposing him in a house where other Army brats lie asleep on the floor, speak volumes about the sacrifices that women have to make to both pay the bills and protect their country.
Other specifics — including the troubled relationship Maggie has with her alcoholic ex, and the budding romance she engages in with a Mexican mechanic (Manolo Cardona, affecting) — feel more telegraphed, helping to drive the plot but treading into familiar territory. Ditto for a late development between Maggie and one of her trainees that takes up too much screen time, even if it ultimately motivates her final, and rather surprising, decision between a life of loyalty and one of domesticity.
Tech credits are of the rough, docu-style variety, with DP Adam Silver benefiting from actual military locations to enhance the film’s sense of realism. A busy score by Asche & Spencer (Monster’s Ball) strays toward the sugary side but gets the job done.
Venue: Champs-Elysees Film Festival
Production company: Yeniceri Pictures
Cast: Michelle Monaghan, Ron Livingston, Manolo Cardona, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Oakes Fegley, Freddy Rodriguez
Director, screenwriter: Claudia Myers
Producers: Claudia Myers, John Sullivan, Patrick Cunningham, Adam Silver, Brendan McDonald
Executive producer: Matt Chesse
Director of photography: Adam Silver
Production designer: Krystyna Loboda
Costume designer: Jessica Wenger
Editors: Matt Chesse, Carsten Kurpanek
Composer: Asche & Spencer
Sales agent: Voltage Pictures
No rating, 115 minutes
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