The figure of the returning veteran has been a constant in human storytelling since Odysseus took the long way home from Troy. When someone comes back from fighting in a war, what does he (or, as is more likely to be true now than at any previous point in history, she) bring back—what volatile mixture of wisdom and bitterness, pride and shame, visible and invisible trauma? Movies from The Best Years of Our Lives to The Manchurian Candidate to The Deer Hunter have explored the returning veteran’s experience, sometimes envisioning the prodigal warrior as a hero, sometimes as a casualty, and sometimes as a threat.
In the years since the U.S.’s prosecution of its various post-9/11 conflicts, films like The Hurt Locker, Brothers, Return, and Stop-Loss have given us veteran protagonists whose internal self-contradictions reflect our ambivalence about those wars: men and women who are heroes, victims, and menaces to themselves and others all at the same time. These stoic but damaged service members rarely, if ever, acknowledge the global politics at work behind the battles they’ve been fighting, or explicitly affirm the American values they’ve pledged to defend. They’re stranded in a strange ideological space, proud of their patriotism and service but unclear on the ultimate purpose of the large-scale suffering they’ve just witnessed and survived.
Two new films out this week, Adam Wingard’s The Guest (in theaters) and Claudia Myers’ Fort Bliss (in theaters and on demand), tell the stories of troubled 21st-century war vets in diametrically opposed styles. The first is a blackly comic, sometimes self-parodying action thriller about a hypermacho sociopath who exploits the hospitality of a grieving family. The second is a straightforward domestic drama about a female soldier attempting, after an extended tour of duty, to reconnect with the family she left behind. But both movies have something to say about returning veterans and those who live with, work with, and love them—and both movies, in their wildly dissimilar fashions, are pretty damn good.
Fort Bliss and The Guest also make up for their structural defects by featuring intensely charismatic central performances from lead actors who, though they’re familiar from a variety of previous projects, haven’t yet quite acceded to the status of movie stars. Fort Bliss’s Michelle Monaghan, last seen as Woody Harrelson’s long-suffering wife on True Detective, transforms into a hard-boiled Army medic who won’t take guff from (or get close to) anyone.
And while The Guest is unfurling before your eyes, you’ll instantly forget that you know Dan Stevens best as a period-costumed dreamboat on Downton Abbey. The thrill ride into which Wingard drags the unsuspecting viewer is too fast, too twisty, and too luridly, dementedly fun to worry about that. In the opening moments, we see the fatigue-clad David Collins (Stevens) making his way on foot toward a small New Mexico town, where he’ll pay an unscheduled visit to the Petersons, a family who has just lost a son in combat in Iraq. As David explains to the dead soldier’s still grief-numbed mother (Sheila Kelley), he served in their son Caleb’s unit and was with him when he died. A photo above the Petersons’ mantelpiece confirms David’s story: There, staring out from a group photo, are this soft-spoken stranger’s eerily spellbinding bright blue eyes. But Stevens seems to be able to extinguish that source of bioluminescence at will in the scenes where David sits alone, contemplating the next step in his scheme with a soulless, dead-eyed gaze.
What is David’s scheme, anyway—the actual plan behind his not-so-gradual infiltration of the Peterson family? We never quite find out the plan’s true dimensions. But it’s immediately clear to the viewer, if not to the understandably vulnerable but comically naive Petersons, that this unctuous charm-dispenser is up to something questionable. After modestly aw-shucksing his way into a free place to stay—after all, Caleb’s room isn’t in use, and who wouldn’t want to lend a helping hand to a returning soldier with nowhere else to go?—he quickly becomes whatever each member of the family needs him to be: sensitive protector, beer-swilling buddy, avenging angel, or object of lust.
I’ll leave you to discover just how all this leads to a climactic chase through a Halloween maze in a high school gym with dry-ice machines at full tilt, set to a nerve-jangling synth score that evokes John Carpenter’s Halloween (to which Wingard, whose previous features have been low-budget horror films, explicitly pays homage). The Guest’s story doesn’t tread much new narrative ground, but that’s part of the point. This is an enjoyably pulpy home-invasion thriller mashed up, at times disturbingly, with a sardonic parable about PTSD and the government’s treatment of vets with mental illness (or, as the recent VA scandal makes clear, any illness at all). The Guest isn’t here to deliver an earnest social message about the state of veterans’ affairs. Instead, the way good horror movies do, it channels our collective fear, guilt, and rage by creating a monster.
“Do you ever feel like killing somebody?” Michelle Monaghan’s Staff Sgt. Maggie Swann asks a male soldier in Fort Bliss, trying to ascertain his state of mental health. The chilling answer: “All the time. Just waiting till they start paying me for it.” Though Fort Bliss, unlike The Guest, is almost completely devoid of violence and gore, that moment seems to diagnose the pathology of macho nihilism that creates someone like Stevens’ satanic yet seductive David Collins.
But Monaghan’s character is just the reverse. She’s so work-focused and honor-bound that she has trouble transitioning from saving lives on the battlefield in Afghanistan to cooking dinner for a picky 5-year-old (both endeavors, incidentally, that require a stout heart). Maggie’s ex-husband (Ron Livingston) has a new live-in girlfriend (Emmanuelle Chriqui), and their son (Oakes Fegley) has grown so attached to the young woman he barely acknowledges the return of his mother. (As her ex points out, she has been gone for about one-third of the boy’s life.)
Fort Bliss is a rare drama about mother-child relations that doesn’t hesitate to de-idealize the maternal bond. When she first gets back to the Texas Army base of the title, Maggie seems to have forgotten how to be a mother. In one hard-to-watch scene, she yanks her misbehaving son out of his chair by the elbow, leaves him crying on the floor, and, calling him a “little shit,” walks out of the room. But although we worry for Maggie’s mental health, we never fear for her son’s physical safety. This isn’t a thriller about a scary PTSD mom but an empathetic drama about the wearying grind of re-integration even for high-functioning veterans, especially when the constant fear of redeployment looms in the background.
Some of the subplots in Fort Bliss, especially a faintly bodice-ripping romance between Maggie and an impossibly dreamy Mexican auto mechanic (Manolo Cardona), seem too shaped by the conventions of the indie drama: a secret-disclosing flashback here, a tasteful but steamy sex scene there. But Maggie’s agonizing zero-sum struggle to balance a life of military service and a steady relationship with her son feels fresh, raw, and real—even if the conflict it enacts is as old as the transition between The Iliad and The Odyssey, between the horrors of the battlefield and the difficult journey home.