Film Review: Echoes of War

Ambitious, deadly earnest, and not as profound as its creators believe, this post-Civil War western fumbles a potentially potent story.
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Technically, you could describe Echoes of War as a classically minded new western with thematic ties to actual classics such as The Searchers and Shane, and a real feel for genuine tragedy. But that would grossly misrepresent what’s to be found in this largely failed attempt. One can commend it for honorable intentions, evocative cinematography and some thoughtful performances in unrewarding roles. Anything more would be wishful thinking.

Like many westerns before it, this one opens with a lone rider, crossing plains and fording streams. You don’t have to be a genre scholar to recognize yet another solitary man, always moving on, not so much going somewhere as leaving somewhere else. So far, so good.

We soon learn that this lone rider is the film’s protagonist, Wade (James Badge Dale), a mentally battle-scarred ex-Confederate soldier, straggling home to Texas for a reunion with his late sister’s family: brother-in-law Seamus Riley (Ethan Embry), teenage niece Abby (Maika Monroe) and younger teenage nephew Samuel (Owen Teague). It’s an initially happy reunion, although right from the outset there is a tense undercurrent between Wade and Seamus. But more about that later.  In the interim, this film, which takes its time getting going and never really changes that pace, pokes around the dynamics of a family that has more secrets than the filmmakers ever divulge. As in, just what happened to Wade’s late sister? Who was Wade before he became a PTSD Civil War survivor? And what was Seamus before he was the stern, taciturn, Bible-quoting patriarch we see here?

Actually, it’s easy to imagine that Seamus was always that, because that’s all he is throughout the course of this film. And this is all too consistent with the way each of the film’s characters strictly adheres to the plot-dictated roles assigned to them. Seamus is the stalwart voice of an unyielding God, Abby is the restless, questioning daughter sneaking off for forbidden trysts with the wrong boy, and Samuel is the uncle-worshipping naïf who only sees the romantic side of war. Lots of room for conflict there–but the film doesn’t do much with that before moving on to the real conflict, from an outside threat that ultimately tears this family apart.

It’s bad enough that the Rileys are barely getting by in a pre-Reconstruction South by trapping furry animals whose meat they eat and whose pelts they sell. But their struggle is compounded by regular raids of the full traps by the neighboring McCluskey family–once-prosperous cattle ranchers who hit hard times after the Confederate army appropriated all their livestock. There’s something satisfyingly elemental about the economics of this conflict. But for every moment that feels organic, there are at least a couple that feel mathematically calibrated.

Which might not have been such a problem if the McCluskeys had even as much character dimension as the Rileys. Alas, that is not the case. Despite some lip service paid to their wartime hardships, they remain stock western villains, led by a stereotypically brutal, implacable, utterly amoral Randolph (William Forsythe). Let’s just say that no matter how problematic the Rileys become, there’s never any doubt whom we’re rooting for.

But the Rileys do make it hard sometimes. As the McCluskeys continue raiding the traps, Wade and Seamus rather tediously debate how to handle the problem. Man of action Wade wants to take the fight to the McCluskeys. Man of God Seamus espouses turning the other cheek. The argument never gets more complex than that. It does, however, get increasingly didactic. Not that that these two men are always so forthright with each other: More than once, people allude to some unnamed “debt” Seamus owes to Randolph McCluskey, as if the filmmakers felt they needed another layer to Seamus’ motivation for keeping his other cheek turned. Fair enough. But then the filmmakers make the inexplicable decision to leave the debt unnamed–thereby making it yet another untold backstory that might have made these characters more compelling.

But vague implicitness seems to be the M.O. of writer-director Kane Senes and co-scripter John Chriss, who give Wade plenty of overt signs of that PTSD (nightmares from which he bolts upright, interludes of staring off into space, outbursts of uncalled-for violence), without even hinting at what horrors he faced in battle. Do we need to have that spelled out? Not necessarily. But with a situation in which we know so little else about a main character, the grim details would be nothing less than character-defining.

But, details or not, it’s increasingly clear that Wade is headed for a meltdown. It’s also fairly easy to see the tragedy coming, as Wade stirs things up with physical assaults on the McCluskey sons–which leads to an armed standoff at the Riley homestead. You know what happens next. The only suspense is in wondering which innocent will die.

After that, it’s no surprise that Wade goes all Taxi Driver at the McCluskey estate. But it is a bit stunning when the carnage includes a truly helpless innocent—whom Wade quite deliberately executes. We get the message: War turns men into killers. We all have that potential. It’s in our nature. It’s no accident that this film repeatedly lingers on shots of animals being killed, gutted and skinned.

Echoes of War was obviously carefully planned yet not thoroughly thought out–which helps explain why it’s heavy-handed instead of hard-hitting and frustratingly cryptic instead of allusively implicit. The filmmakers had a powerful story here. They just didn’t know how to tell it.

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