Detailed plot synopses are something I usually avoid in my reviews. A movie is not what it is about, rather how it explores its subject matter. Several of the greatest movies ever have derivative plots. It’s the specifics of the characters and how this version of the storyline plays out that determines whether or not the movie is good, bad, or mediocre. However, sometimes the flaws are conceptual. To get to the root of such issues, delving into the plot is the best way to go.
Battle Scars, Danny Buday’s latest drama, follows newly returned Marine Luke Stephens. After a fight with Jules (Amy Davidson), his wife, he heads to a strip club. He stiffs the waitress Michelle (Heather McComb) on a tip. So she steals his credit card information and, along with her best friend/ fellow stripper Summer (Kristen Renton), goes on a $9,000 shopping spree. Summer is dating Nicky (Ryan Eggold), an amateur drug pusher who just so happens to be Luke’s brother. Luke confronts Nicky about the missing money, which his brother is clueless about.
Next, Luke confronts Michelle outside of the strip club, only for her to deny it. She goes on to explain that Rifka (Fairuza Balk), the mid-level mafioso owner of the establishment, skims money from clients’ credit cards. Rifka discovers Summer has taken over $50,000 in her time there. To get the money back, Rifka steals Nicky’s product. Meanwhile, Nicky and Michelle bond after he intervenes when Rifka assaults her. They find out that Nicky is out for revenge and try to talk him out of it.
“…the flaws are conceptual…”
That is enough to understand motivations and setup, even if it doesn’t go through every action or mention every character. It would appear that we have a straightforward direct-to-DVD thriller. But, this movie has more on its mind. You see, Luke was medically discharged after his unit drove over an IED (improvised explosive device), that burned a large chunk of his leg and blew his genitals off. As a result, he has severe PTSD. Such a significant character development was left out of the synopsis because of how little it factors into the plot and Luke’s arc.
That this doesn’t fit well into a decent, if unremarkable, thriller probably isn’t too surprising. PTSD only gets mentioned at awkward moments. It also leads to some odd characterizations. Luke and Michelle’s bonding is at the heart of this oddness. After trying to get away from Rifka, the duo hole up in a seedy motel for a day or two. Luke explains what happens to him, and how it has affected his marriage. Then the two start making out like crazy, despite their relationship being built upon the fact that she stole $9,000 from him, which directly led to the endangerment of their friends and family. It is off-putting, especially since the PTSD is never brought up again, after the reveal just before they checkout.
It is not just the plot structure that is lacking. The characters are all written as either naive or just stupid. Luke and Michelle are driving back to Nicky’s, in an attempt to calm him down before he does something irrational. Their conversation during the trip goes along these lines-
Luke: “I always knew it was you who stole my money.”
Michelle: (giggling) “You did not!”
Luke: “Yeah, I did.”
Michelle: “You didn’t!”
Point, in fact, he did, and having her say no to that makes it seem as if she can’t remember further back than a few hours at a time. Each character displays similar ditziness.
Notice how I set out to explicitly write about the PTSD stuff in the movie and that evaporated after a few sentences. Rewrite this film without that angle, and you get the same basic setup, premise, and action happening in the same way. It is frustrating and pointless that PTSD is only brought up for quick drama and then forgotten. Before you think I am reading too much into the all of this background information for Luke, Battle Scars begins with this text over a static black screen-
“Over a decade of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan has left more than 30,000 soldiers seriously wounded from improvised explosive devices. Twice the amputee ratio of World War II and Vietnam. Average Department Of Defense compensation for a limb lost in combat – $50,000.”
Technically speaking, the movie is competent, if unambitious. The few fight scenes flow logically but lack urgency. The cinematography lacks depth of field, so each scene never rises above soap opera aesthetics, casting a cheap feeling over the production and art designs.
“…decent, if unremarkable, thriller.”
Writer/ director Buday fares better with the cast, wringing out rather excellent performances from most of the cast. Holtz has an especially tricky role, but he brings energy and heart to Luke. You believe his frustrations and angst about his time in the war. As Michelle, Heather McComb is a likable and appealing screen presence, who plays off Hotlz nicely. Given how idiotic and spiteful the character is, McComb had an uphill battle the entire time and somehow won. Eggold is slimy and sells Nicky’s desperation well.
Fairuza Balk has been fantastic in several movies throughout her decades-long career, but she’s a caricature as Rifka. Coming off as entirely inauthentic, and devoid of any personality. Maybe it is the inexplicable Tommy Wiseau-esque accent she uses. I don’t know if this was a directorial decision or just embellishment on her end, but it makes it impossible to take Rifka seriously. It is an unnecessary distraction that zaps any imposing posturing she attempts.
Without the PTSD, Battle Scars is a routine thriller, with some engaging performances and decent pacing. But, including PTSD feels exploitative and dramatically inert. It wants to be meaningful and help others understand what returning war heroes go through. Wrapping that up in a movie that would feel at home on Lifetime was not the most effective way to make that statement.
Battle Scars (2017) Directed by Danny Buday. Written by Danny Buday. Starring Zane Holt, Heather McComb, Fairuza Balk, Ryan Eggold, Kristen Renton, Amy Davidson.