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When Bobby Comes Marching Home...
2010 McKnight Fellowship recipient Dan Schneidkraut is a filmmaker unafraid to dig deep into the psychology of tortured individuals. In his brilliant 2007 short "Daddy's Time," the main character, Daddy, remains traumatized some thirty years after being sexually molested by his own uncle. Familial agony again roots itself deep in Schneidkraut's 2009 "Matt's Story," a tale of two vagabonds who hop train after train fruitlessly trying to escape the trappings of suburban life.
In "Victory," Schneidkraut's latest film, the focus is on the lingering effects of war and the damage it does to the human psyche. The film follows Bobby (played exquisitely by local theater actor Daniel Joeick), an Iraq war veteran who returns to take care of his mom-and- pop's farm. A peaceful, Midwestern dairy farm couldn't be further from the battlefields of Baghdad. Still, from the very first shot, it is clear that although Bobby left the war, the war has never left him.
Psychological tension builds from the very first frame. An open window (subtle foreshadowing of the film's intent to peer into Bobby's life) fills the screen, wind slowly blowing through the curtains. A haunting score begins (courtesy of the very talented musician and composer Munly) as the camera slowly pans 360 degrees revealing the knickknacks of Bobby's past: framed family photographs, a guitar case (pay attention to what it really is!), baseball trophies and posters. Nothing seems out of the ordinary until the words "Kill Them All" appear in blood red letters at the bottom of one of Bobby's posters. Bobby is revealed next, looking out his window in a horrifying trance. The shot continues its slow spin through the bedroom as Bobby picks up a photograph and peers numbly into a world that no longer exists. Clearly something has traumatized Bobby, but Schneidkraut, like any good director, withholds the pieces to Bobby's puzzle.
More clues about Bobby's trauma unfold as Bobby begins his daily work routine. Clad in an all green jumpsuit (oddly reminiscent of a soldier's uniform), Bobby grabs some gasoline from the garage and makes his way to his tractor. As he walks near his cornfield, the film turns a greenish hue and a series of wartime audio clips are heard (kudos need to be given to sound designer Chris Bush). Mortars explode and automatic rifles pump bullets over the screams of dying and wounded people. These are the sounds of Bobby's PTSD-riddled psyche and, one can imagine, they are on repeat--like a recurring nightmare.
The motif of audio representing Bobby's past continues throughout the film. One great use of this is a phone call from Bobby's parents. Bobby, recently discharged, hears his parents gush over him, call him a "hero." They are excited that he is "coming home for good" to take care of the farm. While this audio plays, Bobby shovels cow-dung into a wheelbarrow--a crude but effective signal that Bobby is neither a hero nor is he back home. In a psychological sense, he never left the battlefield.
The horror and beauty of this film is in coupling the violence of Bobby's past with the current peace of his life as a farmer. Take, for example, a stunning shot of Bobby feeding his chickens. After throwing feed to a horde of hungry chickens, Bobby sees a dead squirrel in the pen. He bends down to examine the dead animal, picks it up, and moves to dispose it. On the farm, like the battlefield, life doesn't mean much.
One of the most horrifying moments in the film happens off screen. After a long day's work, Bobby returns home to rest. He removes his boots (combat boots, perhaps?) and heads into his kitchen. The camera stays on the entryway as off-screen the sounds of dishes being smashed and glass shattering echo on the soundtrack. The telephone in the entryway interrupts the action and Bobby returns to answer the phone. On the other end of the phone, Bobby's mother informs Bobby the doctor "couldn't reattach" and Bobby needs to pick up his father up at the hospital. In this simple but terrifying statement questions abound: The doctor couldn't reattach what? How did his father get something severed? Was it an accident or did Bobby do it in a fit of frenzy? The answer is never given, of course, but the question is made much more frightening by the blood slowly oozing out of Bobby's hand.
The climax of the film happens, like the beginning of the film, in Bobby's bedroom. Bobby, all alone, sits at his desk slowly cleaning his automatic rifle and piecing it back together. (Note: On the upper right hand of the frame is a picture of Bobby smiling with his mother, a tragic reminder that Bobby was once a normal kid). When his rifle is locked and loaded, Bobby moves to sit in a chair near his bed. The position of his body is reminiscent of Pvt. Pile from Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, right before Pile paints the bathroom walls red with his brains. In contrast to the swirling opening shot, this shot, absolutely still, builds its tension by simply watching Bobby. Is he going to do it? Is he going to put an end to his pain? Ultimately, Schneidkraut chooses mercy for Bobby. Bobby puts the rifle back in its case, does some push ups, and gazes out his window. For Bobby, another day without pulling the trigger must feel like victory.
When it comes to delving deep into the psychology of characters, writer and director Dan Schneidkraut is unmatched among local Minnesota filmmakers. In an era of amateur film dominated by pastiche and parody, Schneidkraut offers a fresh voice, dark though it may be. Victory is the latest reminder why Schneidkraut is a deserving McKnight Fellowship recipient and a filmmaker worth listening to.