Dear Hollywood: War Veterans Aren’t Here to Kill You. (Guest Column)

You might not remember it, and I only barely did, but a while back, the trailer hit for an indie-ish sci-fi film called Black Rock, directed by Katie Aselton of The League and co-written by Mark Duplass. I sort of pegged it as not my cup of tea and forgot about it, but some of the veterans that saw it… well, they seemed pissed. Alex Horton – a mutual friend through Matt Ufford – asked if he could take a crack at explaining why. He wrote a guest column more on the topic of veteran portrayals in movies in general than this small movie specifically, and it’s a perspective that, as a wussy civilian, I can’t really offer you myself. But considering the way we sort of outsource all our fighting to the all-volunteer force and forget about it, it’s a perspective worth trying to understand, and thus one I thought it was worth sharing.

War Veterans Hunt Chicks: The Movie

An unlikable trio of New England women set out to camp on an island and hash out white girl problems when they encounter three dishonorably discharged war veterans in the middle of a hunt. One guy gets too frisky, a girl bashes his head in, and the two remaining men stalk the three women as they loudly yell about boyfriend-stealing in the woods.

That’s the premise of Black Rock, a film directed by Katie Aselton and co-written with her husband Mark Duplass, both stars of The League on FX. Aselton, Kate Bosworth and Lake Bell star as the women. Almost every review tags the film as a foxy Deliverance, but it’s more Friday the 13th meets “The Most Dangerous Game” meets Travis Bickle shooting johns in the dick.

This really isn’t a review of Black Rock, as that burden has been carried enough at the point (“Lackluster and surprisingly generic!” raves The AV Club). Rather, this is a look at how veterans are typified onscreen. When it comes to portrayals, soldiers in war movies are case studies in archetypes—the tough guy, the soft nerdy one, the Brooklynite, Barry Pepper. But they’re generally normal, and in a good film, probably complex.

But the inverse is true for veteran characters who have left the military, most of whom tend to exhibit the most extreme cases of post-traumatic stress. John Rambo rampaged through a sleepy Oregon town, and Red Forman, back from the Korean War, left a devastating wake of violence and abuse. Driven by their demons and guilt, war veterans onscreen are invariably unstable, violent and sullen.

The consequences of that tired portrayal decay our broader acceptance and understanding of war veterans. Last year, the Center for a New American Security surveyed 69 companies on why (or why not) they hire veterans. Not surprisingly, more than half said negative stereotypes gleaned from media and popular culture made them wary of bringing veterans aboard.

So how do the twisted veterans act in the film? One of the first things we learn about the men is that they served in Afghanistan. One of them gives curt, robotic answers to questions while staring ruefully into a fire. He holds a spoon in a defensive knife position. They have been home just 18 days from combat.

While one—Henry—gropes Aselton’s character Abby in the woods, the remaining two describe what happened in Helmand Province. Atrocities are implied. “Sometimes you can’t go by the book, you know?” one of them says. Henry apparently saved their lives but they were dishonorably discharged in the process.

What follows is virtually the only thing Aselton nails about the civilian/military divide. The girls are at a loss for words or questions as the two men clumsily describe their deployment. They don’t speak the same language, and their experiences are too foreign and dramatic for the young women to grasp.

Their ignorance is symptomatic of a culture that doesn’t know the more than two million million troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. For many veterans, back in school or at work after leaving the service, they are surrounded by those who haven’t shared in the experienced.

The telling portrait of a society uneasy with the moral consequences of a decade of warfare quickly erodes once Henry is killed by Abby in an act of self-defense. The two remaining veterans, Alex and Will, respond by knocking out the women, tying them down and readying their execution.

Now, I don’t think Aselton and Duplass made their villains crazy veterans out of malice or hatred of ‘Muricuh or anything like that. To her credit, Aselton ensures they are labeled as dishonorably discharged in the script and in interviews. But that detail is lost in many reviews, like Roeper’s for instance, in which he simply describes them as “recently discharged” after combat. I really don’t think most civilians know the difference between honorable and dishonorable discharges other than the wording, so for a good deal of people, they’re just war veterans.

The real culprit here is artistic laziness and social disconnection (a more original take could’ve been George Washington: Coed Hunter). The unstable veteran archetype has become expository shorthand for characters with a blend of weapons training and unsettling trauma that, according to Aselton, is a recipe for “a very real threat.”

In reality, there is no link between combat trauma and murder, yet we nod along because the inevitable result of combat trauma is a horde of war veterans raping and pillaging across America.

As the women in the film awake after being knocked unconscious, Alex and Will frantically discuss their predicament. In dialogue that might have been outsourced to a coked out Tarantino, Will shouts, “Part of me wants to do this shit just f*cking haji style bro, just saw their f*cking heads off!”

The implication? Will, suffering the trauma of seeing his best friend killed, has cognitively disassociated himself and is back in combat, his eyes gleaming with potential for gory revenge.

This moment presents an opportunity for Aselton’s characters to exhibit some sort of tension and deliberation beyond her audience’s expectations. Alex hesitates at first to go along with the plan, but in a stupefying and confusing moment, he disregards his objections almost immediately and stands by as Will decides to make with the murdering.

I don’t know why the antagonists in Black Rock are war veterans beyond serving as dramatic accelerants for a girl-power comeuppance fantasy. Aselton and Duplass seem just as clueless. Nothing interesting or unexpected happens as a result of their backgrounds. It just simply leaves room for ugly and damaging stereotypes to stretch into yet another decade, long after Vietnam veterans were first tarred and feathered in cheap pop culture portrayals. My generation of veterans are now treated to the same reductive smearing.

Countless men and women who have returned from America’s wars have succeeded because of their service, not in spite of it. Our middle class exists largely because of veterans of World War II, and folks returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have filled gaps in communities here at home. They rebuild neighborhoods and provide essential disaster relief, most notably after Hurricane Sandy and the tornadoes in Moore, Oklahoma.

Luckily Black Rock has been lost in video-on-demand wasteland, but for us it was yet another movie that cheapened and abused the image of returning veterans as we find our place after combat. War veterans are home, and we don’t want to kill you. Please let Hollywood know.

Alex Horton served for 15 months as an infantryman in Iraq with the Third Stryker Brigade, Second Infantry Division in 2006-2007. Follow him on Twitter.

[To her credit, Aselton did attempt to respond to Horton‘s criticisms on Twitter. Pictures via Facebook.]