Michelle Monaghan, who’s played second fiddle in such projects as Gone Baby Gone and True Detective, gets the chance to steer her own star-making vehicle with Fort Bliss—and her performance is nothing short of masterful. The film is pretty much the perfect opportunity too, as it’s one hell of a character study: Monaghan plays a U.S. Army medic finally home from war, riddled with all the complications and adjustments that transition necessitates. Comparisons to The Hurt Locker abound, though they aren’t inappropriate: take that film’s sentiment and shift the gender POV, moving the action predominantly state-side, and you’ve got a picture that would make Kathryn Bigelow proud.
In the Middle East, Monaghan’s Maggie Swann is a can-do staff sergeant riding around in Humvees, pulling shrapnel from wounded soldiers and firing back in dogfights. Back home, she’s got custody of her five-year-old son Paul (Oakes Fegley), but she hasn’t seen him in over a year and a half, during which he’s become attached to Alma (Emmanuelle Chirqui), his father’s new girlfriend. The film isn’t shy about drawing a very stark debate: which is the true Hell, war or, in the case of Swann’s divorce from Paul’s father, marriage?
Through tantrums and withdrawal, Paul lets his mother know he’s none too pleased with his current situation back in Maggie’s care, constantly comparing her maternal losses to Alma’s wins. Then, with discharge imminent, though protocol has her regularly checking in at the titular base (a real base in Texas), Maggie does the unthinkable and re-enlists. It’s a hard sell given her situation, but then again, like Jeremy Renner’s bomb tech in Hurt Locker, dislocation from society is understandable. Couple that with her inability to connect to her son, and it becomes obvious that her drive to feel effective and needed will inevitably lead her back to the front.
It’s also at this time that Maggie becomes involved with an immigrant mechanic (Manolo Cardona) clinging to a green card. Thankfully, politics involving immigration commingling with popular prejudice about the wars in the Middle East don’t rear their heads with any heavy hand. The issues are there, because they just…are, but the tale, written and directed by Meyers, instead sets its sites on the all too human drama of what happens when people who are fiercely loyal, who devote themselves to following orders, are confronted with finally shaping their own destinies.
Maggie is a compelling character on her own; it’s the development of some side characters, supposedly Maggie’s emotional ballasts, which wound Fort Bliss. Like Paul, who is mostly positioned as an emotional prop. The film’s true focus is in Maggie’s relationship with full-grown men, both in the field and in the bed, which reveal the side of Maggie inaccessible to the personnel to whom she pledges allegiance. For example, Maggie’s uneasy relationship with her ex, Richard (the eternally under-appreciated Ron Livingston), exhibits a chemistry of deep-seated conflict, is achingly real, everyday and disturbingly palpable in ways that speak of years of discontent.
Though Meyers has only helmed one other film, 2006’sKettle of Fish, given the seeds of insight sown throughout Fort Bliss and her obvious penchant to probe without being overwrought, she’s clearly a talent who bears wisdom and patience behind her vision. Be it Monaghan’s performance or Meyers’s confidence, Fort Bliss is a sure sign that this director used the near decade between films to hone her craft immeasurably.
Director: Claudia Meyers
Writer: Claudia Meyers
Starring: Michelle Monaghan, John Savage, Oakes Fegley, Emmanuelle Chirqui, Manolo Cardona, Ron Livingston
Release Date: Sept. 19, 2014
Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge, MA. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in The Boston Phoenix, The Rumpus, Thieves Jargon, Charleston City Paper and SLAB. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere. You can follow him on Twitter.