The lingering cost of war is at the heart of “Blood Stripe,” a Minnesota-made drama about a female Marine combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The character is known only as Our Sergeant. In Kate Nowlin’s striking, empathetic performance, she is a tough, battle-hardened and battle-scarred grunt carrying her own vulnerabilities. This Marine doesn’t spend a lot of time sharing her feelings verbally. Still, her haunted eyes make it clear that this woman of few words is still fighting inner skirmishes that could explode into real life at a small provocation.
From the opening moment when she walks through an airport exit, returning home to Minnesota after three tours of duty, it’s clear she is now a stranger in a strange land.
At home, she takes a bear hug from her husband (Chris Sullivan) with relief. When a friend offers the same greeting, her shocking reaction shows that she’s in need of a checkup at the VA hospital, but is hardly in condition to face the 129-day wait for an appointment.
The comforts of home are not remedies for post-traumatic stress disorder. The sergeant doesn’t feel that she belongs in their kitchen anymore; uninvited attention from strangers and unexpected noises put her on a razor’s edge. Her physique is carrying scars, and so is her mind. Her self-medicating with constant exercise and six-packs of beer offers no respite.
Sarge’s fight-or-flight instinct triggers her withdrawal to the summer camp of her childhood on the shores of Lake Vermilion. She hopes to use the hushed, calm wilderness to process her unnamed anxieties. She volunteers to help the camp prepare for autumn’s last guests, a visit by a church group. Longtime character actor René Auberjonois plays Art, the church elder who delivers the film’s comic relief along with some sensitive counseling. Still, Sarge’s tendency to see blood where it may not actually be continues to torment her.
Women negotiating their way through the minefield of civilian life after combat is new territory for film, and, as presented here, rich as well. This is a sensitive, powerfully stated conversation. There is no wasted melodrama in “Blood Stripe” (the title refers to the crimson streamer on Marines’ dress blue trousers).
It doesn’t directly address service members’ PTSD mental health issues or their shocking rate of suicide (about 20 daily, according to the VA). Whether Sarge’s trauma was caused by sexual abuse while in service, the deaths of too many comrades in arms or scenes she witnessed and can never forget doesn’t matter. Wisely, the film leaves many possibilities open for viewers to consider. It implies everything with subtlety and restraint and lectures about nothing.
Nowlin co-wrote the spare script with her husband and fellow Guthrie Theater stalwart Remy Auberjonois (René’s son), who directs. She excels in her part, with the fierce physical and visceral bearing of an utterly convincing veteran. She throws herself into the character’s repressed rage, producing a mixture of anger and melancholy that feels relentless.
This is accomplished work, part serious social drama, part mystery, part psychological thriller. The film is small in scale but not in impact.
★★★½ out of 4 stars
Unrated: by the MPAA.
Theater: St. Anthony Main.