As many of our Middle East wars are drawing down, Hollywood is continuing its trend of capturing the experience soldiers had while in that war, but more importantly, telling intimate stories of the brave men and women as they adjust back to civilian life once their tours of duty are over. Last year’s Causeway explored the notion of trauma from coming back home and displayed just how versatile actors Jennifer Lawrence and Brian Tyree Henry really are (even netting Henry his first of probably many Oscar nominations). This year’s latest film from director Joshua Caldwell: Mending The Line also explores the ramifications of war, survivor’s guilt, and the need to heal from trauma to move forward, and it also gets to teach you a whole bunch about fly-fishing.
While Mending The Line is a story about war, we only get to really see the notion of “war is hell” in the first few opening minutes, as the rest of the film is quiet, methodical, and really takes its time to explore the human condition and the need to move beyond the pain. John Colter (Sinqua Walls) is a soldier in Afghanistan who volunteers his unit for “one last mission” prior to them getting shipped back home. Unfortunately, things go awry as his unit is ambushed and most of his squad that he leads are killed by insurgents. In the aftermath, Colter is dealing with many injuries, both physical and more importantly, mental.
His time at a local VA hospital doesn’t bode well for him. His primary focus is faking it to be approved to go back “home” to the Marines, even though his doctor Dr. Burke (Patricia Heaton) has her work cut out for him. At the same time, Vietnam Veteran Ike Fletcher (Brian Cox) has been a recluse and spends most of his time fly-fishing in isolation. However, after passing out on his own, Dr. Burke forbids him from fishing on his own as he could possibly pass out with no one to look out for him. With Colter and Ike both needing a radical change in their lives, Dr. Burks proposes an idea: Ike must teach Colter fly-fishing as a form of therapy to help him heal and both soldiers will be able to do what they love.
Of course, at first, this odd couple doesn’t really want to interact with each other. Ike doesn’t even really care to take on his young ward, but thanks to an injury for his current fishing buddy Harrison (Wes Studi), Ike takes Colter on as his “apprentice.” First acting like Mr. Miyagi, Ike has Colter doing basic tasks, which of course are prepping him for fly-fishing or as Ike calls it “recon work.” Colter takes his assignment seriously and goes as far as to the library to learn all he can about fly-fishing, where he meets Lucy (Perry Mattfeld), a local librarian who is also navigating her own trauma, as her fiancé died a few years ago and she is also stuck in a mental rut.
The trio is interlocked by trauma, and also their separate bonds with Colter. Ike becomes a reluctant father figure to Colter while Lucy and Colter grow close. Mending The Line has Colter and Lucy’s relationship as romantic, however, the two never even share a kiss, which is an odd choice. As Mending The Line continues, they share with each other details of their past traumas and through fly-fishing and interacting with each other, they allow themselves to heal from their traumas.
Mending The Line is fairly predictable (except for the choice of one of the characters), but what really stands out in the movie is the performances. Everyone really brings their A-game throughout the film and delivers some strong performances. Perry Mattfeld who has been delivering on The CW’s In The Dark (who reminded me that she’s not really blind in real life as she’s so good on that show) as she stands out as someone also “stuck” in her grief until Colter comes in her life. A scene where she and Sinqua Walls have a true heart-to-heart about both of their PTSD issues showcases how well the two act in concert with each other and emotionally resonate. And of course, Brian Cox is friggin Brian Cox! The life lessons his Ike Fletcher imprints on Walls’ Colter display a wisdom beyond his years and his monologues about life and fly-fishing are pitch-perfect writing. Another outstanding achievement of Mending The Line is the cinematography and filming on location in Montana once again reminds us that there is some outstanding scenery throughout our landscapes.
The ending of Mending The Line leaves a little to be desired. As stated, it’s somewhat predictable, but the fate of one of the characters felt a little out of place and I thought that it should have gone in a different direction. The film was also made with the supervision of the Department of Defense, so there’s no criticism of any of the United State’s foreign policy that probably led these characters to their fates. Instead, it makes their trauma a personal one and not a political one, which is them having their cake and eating it too.
But that doesn’t take away from the overall message of Mending The Line of finding a way to explore your guilt, trauma, and grief and finding a way to move beyond it. Being a soldier is but one chapter in a soldier’s life and the key is to find out what to do next to be happy and comfortable with yourself with the time you have. And it really makes you want to go fly-fishing!
Mending The Line is currently available in theaters.