Chadwick Boseman’s early film about post-war trauma shone a light on his talents.
I’m starting my September look at Boseman’s filmography with his second feature film, 2012’s The Kill Hole. While the indie film was rough around the edges, strong character development highlighted Boseman’s talent for conflicted, yet strong, leading roles.
The Kill Hole (2012)
Iraq war veteran Lt. Drake (Boseman), drifts through his life state-side. Tormented by a war crime he was party to, he refuses to open up about his experience despite falling in with a charismatic vet (Billy Zane) and his support group.
His past comes back to haunt him when another Iraq vet (Tory Kittles) begins killing private military contractors involved with the illicit operation Drake was a part of. The killer has called out Drake specifically, and the mercenary outfit wants to oblige – by sending Drake into the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest to hunt and kill a fellow soldier.
The War at Home.
The central concern of director Mischa Webley’s film is what happens to soldiers when they return home. The film tries to explore different facets of the experience, from the stereotypical to the specific, from the mundane to the melodramatic. Due to this, the film can be inconsistent in tone and execution.
On the realism front, the supporting cast is made up of nearly a dozen actual combat veterans. Everyone in Zane’s support group, besides Boseman, is a real vet. The film spends a lot of time with the group, hearing their stories, which again range from heartbreaking to humorous and a lot in between.
Boseman and Kittles absorb and reflect a lot of common stereotypes of returning veterans in their roles. Some of them land, like when we see a supposedly reformed Kittles back in civilization…where he’s promptly become a homeless beggar. The paranoia that keeps Boseman aloof from anyone trying to help him rings true, until we find out that most of his fears are realized when the cartoonishly evil mercenaries catch up with him.
The bipolar nature of the film really handicaps it. Tory Kittles brings a lot of energy to his performance, but the character and his dialogue is one part First Blood and one part Col. Kurtz from Apocalypse Now. Quite a bit of the film feels like homage to Francis Ford CopPala’s psychodrama opus. The journey across the wilderness, the manic pronouncements and grandiosity of Kittles’ character, the tragic story beat of a soldier having to hunt another soldier at the behest of an equally immoral power structure. Heck, I even though Billy Zane looked like Marlon Brando (though he gives a really light-touch performance that was refreshing.)
Having one half of the film be such an allegorical psychic drama, and the other half being a melancholy and grounded look at returning to life for soldiers pulls the movie apart. The tone, the pacing, the dialogue, and the moral arguments can’t mesh. That leaves The Kill Hole to rely on performances, which is fortunate.
Dead Man Walking.
The one through-line of the film that lands is that for our protagonists, the post-war experience is like being already dead. The film literally opens with Kittles waxing philosophical on the topic. Several of the veterans in the support group speak to how they have become non-entities since returning – to their families, to society, and especially to the military support structure that molded so much of their formative experiences.
Boseman’s Lt. Drake passes through the city as a taxi driver like a phantom. People talk at him, not to him, and he rarely engages. Later, we see Kittle also become a ghost in the city, unseen behind a cardboard sign asking for change. It’s only when both men are in the wilderness, being soldiers, hunting each other, that they become active and engaged. It may be a reductionist view of ex-soldiers, but it certainly resonates thanks to strong leads.
The Future King.
I can’t really call The Kill Hole a good movie. I don’t think it’s a bad movie, either. It has a vision and a moral center, though it often becomes obscured by artistic artifice. While some of it feels contrived, I think a good bit of it will resonate with audiences familiar with the struggles of soldiers re-integrating into a society that doesn’t live up to its promises.
What the film does show is that Boseman really brought something special to every role. Webley talked about casting Chadwick in the role, and how dedicated to the character he was. You can certainly see how his method of acting and the care he had to bring his subjects to life would translate into his more famous roles.