Two Soldiers (2003)

The mention of a “short film” typically conjures images of artsy posturing, claymation, and distanced, a-narrative pieces wrought with incomprehensibility. With abbreviated running times, these works (or at least the most conspicuous and, thus, widely known examples) often become celluloid playgrounds for new directors to stretch their legs.

The toxic, avant-garde homogony of film school often poisons these works into becoming stylistic collages of directors you are supposed to respect. How many times has a friend pitched a short, “You know, it’s kinda like Brakhage meets Tarentino, with a little Lynch thrown in.”? If the film was indeed true to this description I imagine it would involve pieces of insects engaged in witty banter and calling their sexual partners “Mommy”. A real formula for success. Fortunately (or something), when some puerile director describes his film as such what he really means is “this film is derivative and nothing like any of the directors I giddily name dropped.”

Now imagine a film as completely removed from this art academy morass as possible. A short film which instead of substituting entropy for structure, has a readily comprehensible and airtight narrative, a film with all the warmth of To Kill a Mockingbird and almost devoid of camp, a film riddled with beautifully human performances. Chances are you are thinking of a work very close to Two Soldiers, from William Faulkner’s famed short story… but nowhere as good as Schneider’s actual 40-minute tour-de-force. Before I continue the review I want to wrangle the elephant which is doubtlessly going to make his presence known in the room. Two Soldiers made me cry, a feat which has not been achieved since my adolescent viewing of Dead Poet’s Society (Robin Williams you are indeed my captain).

Two Soldiers relates the tale of two brothers, Pete and Willie Grier, with an immaculate fraternal bond. Despite that he’s much older, Pete spends his leisure time exclusively with Willie; teaching him the ways of the woods, trading bird’s eggs, and just good ol’ fashioned horsing around. Cradled in the film’s warm, almost sepia tones, the two brothers’ robust friendship is absolutely striking. However, idyll signals its own collapse by a perfection which defies the harsh equanimity of the world. Pearl Harbor is bombed by the Japanese and Pete, eager to serve his country, enlists, leaving Willie without his best friend and brother.

Of course, the younger Willie protests and admonishes Pete to allow him accompany him and carry firewood for the army. Ever the voice of reason, Pete refuses to entertain such notions, and hops on a Greyhound headed to the big city to become a soldier. Willie proceeds to sneak out of the house and undertake a journey to find his brother which is at once both Odyssey and Homeward Bound (in milieu — I am fully aware that both of these tales relate a return rather than a departure). I do not want to spoil terribly much of the plot but I will say this: eventually Willie’s path crosses that of a Col. James McKellogg, played sublimely by the hulking Ron Perlman. The strange, gruff sweetness of Mr. Hellboy himself is fantastic to watch and one of the best performances in a movie brimming with on-point acting.

If none of this sounds terribly groundbreaking, that is most likely because it is not. Furthermore, this is not a fault. Enslaved to the momentum of “progress” art, too often, flails wildly, trying to advance the medium but only comes out sloppy and completely unrelatable to any audience. Far from arguing for the inertia of art, I am, rather, suggesting that art can be pushed forward by a masterful work within the existing bounds of the craft, après-garde if you will. Art need not always be dragged from the fore by left-field works irrelevant to the public. Two Soliders is incredible apropos the war film, the family drama, the journey epic and, most notably, it all comes in under the 50-minute mark. Aaron Schneider has created quite the filmic clown car of brilliance (if that figurative language makes any sense whatsoever).

In case I was at all oblique in my opinion: Is a short film worth your money? Two Soldiers does more for filmmaking and your library of DVDs than a shelf full of the three-hour feats of endurance that are now commonplace. Does Two Soldiers really play to any audience? I cannot think of a demographic that would not enjoy this movie. It is a little slow-moving for young children but, cinematic panacea that it is, Two Soldiers should be shown to them, if for no other reason than to combat the ADD trends of kid programming. (If you really want to be parent of the year, give interested youths Faulkner’s short story to read. You just may be responsible for reversing video games and cheap television’s trend of producing vapid adult illiterati.)

Will you cry at the end of Two Soldiers? Yes…and you will love it.

The special features should probably be avoided. Do not make the mistake of dulling the serene affect of the film by watching the long-winded, drawling commentary coupled with the DVD. Enjoy this short by itself; it needs no exposition, no making-of.

RATING 9 / 10