The Damned (2024)

The Damned Review

The Damned

“The Damned,” Roberto Minervini’s latest film, is set during the Civil War a great distance from the battlefield. This continues an examination of American society that has been central to his work as an Italian filmmaker for many years. With the exception of one long battle against an enemy we never see, it is a peaceful portrayal: Union soldiers are assigned to scout the Northwestern frontier in 1862. At a time when the country is divided, this mission brings together men from different backgrounds who become friends and colleagues (slavery goes unmentioned; God comes up often).

This is the first period piece by Minervini, whose previous movies include “Stop the Pounding Heart” and “The Other Side,” both unsparing looks at contemporary life in the South. But still, this quiet, sometimes lyrical film feels like a natural extension of those works. It is also thin and virtually nonexistent plot-wise even by art-house standards: I smiled when I saw “Story by” during the closing credits because I had not detected much of one until then. Yet “The Damned” adds another thoughtful chapter to a career that consistently invites us to consider how Americans think about faith, class and community whether they know it or not.

In its opening half-hour or so, we glimpse what these scouts do each day as they tramp across unfamiliar territory together, pushing a covered wagon up steep hills toward what? Their assignment is vague, we learn only through onscreen text at the start. One man, middle-aged and more experienced than his peers, hunts for gold. When they stop moving, they gather around campfires with leaky coffee cups in their hands. The talk among them sounds improvised it’s hard to believe Minervini wrote down much more than notes for each scene but stays within character; he wants to examine earlier versions of our national tensions and beliefs.

Geographically speaking, this takes Minervini farther than he has gone before, beyond Texas backwoods and Louisiana swamps to the wilds of Montana. The film begins in slow motion, with wolves tearing into a deer carcass an image that suggests a level of menace or violence the rest of “The Damned” never quite matches. Ultimately it is only their Confederate enemies who are as lethal to these Union volunteers as the cold is; one of the movie’s most haunting moments shows two frozen bodies lying in snow while their horse struggles to break free from its tether.

With their full beards, woolen caps and blunt features, Minervini’s actors often have the look of authentic Civil War soldiers seen in old daguerreotypes (especially Tim Carlson, who played one half of the family at the center of “Stop the Pounding Heart,” here cast as a sergeant). Characters tend to fade in and out across Minervini’s films, and “The Damned” is no exception although this time there are more of them. A small group makes its way to Montana where they bond for a while before running into Confederate snipers who thin their ranks.

Minervini has always been one to blur the line between documentary and fiction, and in The Damned re-enactment mode as Civil War participants play themselves in period garb he covers the ambush like a war photographer might. Carlos Alfonso Corral, who shot Minervini’s striking black-and-white doc “What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?,” is the DP here, chasing after soldiers as they duck for cover and try to return fire; hidden by distant bushes, the enemy remains unseen, which makes the conflict that much more disconcerting.

Is The Damned really a war movie? At times, its low-key approach feels more akin to Kelly Reichardt’s Oregon Trail saga “Meek’s Cutoff” not because both films are set less than two decades or two states apart, but because each provides an antidote to what we think of as a Western. For one thing, it doesn’t even bother to identify characters by name (rejecting 20th-century focus on individuality where heroic characters might be played by John Wayne or Henry Fonda) so much as show us a collective sea of faces.

That’s something so many war movies get wrong: When men enlist in the Army, they agree to put cause ahead of self. It becomes their duty to accept orders however counterintuitive whereas authority figures in Hollywood movies (of the past 50 years at least) are nearly always wrong; success can only come when someone steps out of line and does what’s right; such behavior would almost surely get the fanatic (and many of his comrades) killed.

Challenging America’s own mythology along these lines, Minervini dispenses with such tropes while affording his characters including fresh-faced teen known only as “Young Soldier” (Judah Carlson) room to reflect on their reasons for signing up. They question the existence of God, debate the ideas of good and evil, try to make sense of their mounting disillusion. The Damned may meander, but in so doing, it strives toward something authentic.

Watch The Damned For Free On Gomovies.

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