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Non-Review Review: Fort McCoy

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2012.

Fort McCoy is a mess of a film that manages to botch a fairly interesting and compelling premise. Though Eric Stoltz does manage to escape the film with much of his dignity intact, many of his co-stars are not nearly as lucky. Written and directed by, and co-starring, Kate Connor, the movie struggles to find any measure of tonal consistency, as the movie takes basic concepts like cultural identity and coming-of-age drama, only to mangle them by playing to extreme melodrama. Indeed, most of the movie’s problems find expression in a single awkward moment: following the death of one of their own, the German P.O.W.’s at the eponymous camp arrange a funeral profession, which Connor opts to film in slow-motion, treating us to the unintentionally hilarious image of a bunch of mourning slow-motion goose-stepping Nazis. It’s a scene that beautifully evokes all the sorts of complex emotions that Connor was undoubtedly aiming for, but also demonstrates that the film has absolutely no idea how to get them to work together.

The war at home...

Fort McCoy is roughly structured as a coming-of-age story, opening with a monologue from a young girl accompanying her family to the eponymous military installation. It’s fairly heavy-handed, but it seems to let us know what we’re going to be in for: a cloying family drama about that one magical summer that a family spent on a camp populated with prisoners imported from Japan and Europe. The family’s patriarch, Frank Stirn, is a descendent of German immigrants, and feels the need to prove his loyalty to his adopted homeland. When a soldier makes an off-hand remark about the “Krauts”, he’s quick to apologise to Frank, but Frank has none of it. “We’re Americans,” he states, matter-of-factly. Unable to serve, Frank has agreed to become a barber at the camp, cutting the hair of soldiers and prisoners alike.

In fairness, this is easily the most fascinating aspect of the film. Part of that fascination stems from the idea of cultural and social identity. Is Stirn truly American, or is he tainted by association with Germany? Must he completely disavow his heritage in order to prove himself to those around him? Stoltz gives, as ever, a wonderfully solid performance, providing some measure of subtle and dignity to a film that is about as restrained as a sledgehammer. It’s a shame that the movie never truly taps into this plotline though, preferring to focus on a love story involving Stirn’s sister-in-law and a reverse version of The Boy In the Striped Pyjamas with his daughter. There’s also the possibility his wife may cheat on him, but neither party involved in that plot line is interesting enough to merit attention.

A Stirn father...

The plot is smothered by Connor’s writing. While Lyndsy Fonseca might not be the finest young actress working, it’s hard to imagine any actor or actress could work with her dialogue. It’s clunky and forced, with characters literally proclaiming “of course!” before outlining exposition the audience might have missed. Wondering how her boyfriend could have missed that film? “Of course! You were over seas!” Wondering why there’s no spare tire? “Of course! The rubber shortage!” That damned dirty rubber shortage. The direction doesn’t help either, with the least convincing portrayal of post-traumatic stress disorder that I have ever seen.

However, the movie really runs into problems with its “young girl befriends young German”plotline. Part of it is the fact that Connor seems to have found an eight-year-old German version of William Shatner to play the role of the German kid. I don’t understand German, but I know ham-tastic acting when I see it. And, to be frank, part of me liked that at least one person was injecting a bit of life into the film. That said, there are more fundamental… uncomfortable aspects to the movie, particularly with a seedy twist about the boy that feels like cheap emotional manipulation. More than that, though, it has rather hefty unfortunate implications.

Parting shots...

I get that the most featured German prisoner is an S.S. Officer and, thus, not a nice man. However, every other German in his camp is inherently complicit with his antics, which casts a bit of an unfortunate implication about… well, Germans. I get that it’s supposed to be a holocaust analogy, but it is (a.) ridiculously blunt, and (b.) it doesn’t really work as a holocaust analogy. It doesn’t help that they make the character so ridiculous evil that he might as well have a curly moustache as he checks of items on the “things to do to make the audience hate you” master list he must keep by his bunk. It doesn’t help that his final fate is ambiguous, given that nothing else in the movie is.

Fort McCoy is a disappointing mess, if only because there’s a lot here that could work under different conditions, with better writing, better direction and better performances. In fact, that potential – coupled with a solid leading performance from Stoltz – is the only reason the film hasn’t garnered the lowest possible ranking. Instead, it seems like it’s a wonder that Stoltz escapes with any of his dignity intact.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 2

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2 Responses

  1. I am really enjoying your postings from the Dublin festival. Fort McCoy may be one I will miss, when it gets to London. Do you notice a trend in film of biggish budget movies spending everything on sets and design and forgetting to put sufficient effort into plots that actually engage the viewer? Maybe they should spend a little more time and money on some decent writers!

    • Thank you very much, and I wouldn’t recommend it, I’m afraid.

      That’s a fair enough summary of the Fest so far. I think the two films so far I’ve been seriously disappoint with (this and Black Gold) had various scripting difficulties. And the films with the broadest appeal and the most engaging wit (Monsieur Lahzar or Jeff Who Lives at Home) both had very strong scripts to work from. Still, that said, I think that Samsara mostly worked despite the fact it didn’t have a script, or that Albert Nobbs is salvaged by a bunch of great performances covering a too-smart-for-its-own-good script. And I think that the most controversial and divisive film I’ve seen this at the festival this year, Casa De Mi Padre (which I loved, but know I’ll be in the minority on), excelled because of the execution rather than the script itself.

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