Plenty of recent documentaries have portrayed the horrors of war, whether on the battlefield (Restrepo, Tell Spring Not to Come This Year) or the home front (Wartorn, Of Men and War). But few have revealed what it’s like for soldiers to return to their native land between tours of duty, waiting to be sent back to combat.
The sense of anticipation and ennui that sets in at such moments is the subject of Killing Time, an observant and formally arresting non-fiction feature from Belgian director Lydie Wisshaupt-Claudel (Sideroads).
A formally arresting account of Marines awaiting their next call to battle
Set in the California city of Twentynine Palms, which houses the world’s largest U.S. Marine Corps base, the film follows a dozen troopers as they sit around the house or wander about town, engaging in mostly quotidian enterprises: playing with their kids, getting tattoos and buzz cuts, drinking beer and dancing to Steve Earle, participating in Bible study groups, or else blowing off steam by firing handguns into the dirt.
In other words, not much happens in Killing Time, which seems to be precisely the point – but which will also make the movie a hard sell outside the festival and museum circuit following a premiere at the Cinema du Reel fest in Paris. Yet Wisshaupt-Claudel brings a strong enough level of craft to make the proceedings worth watching, capturing the desert landscapes in static wide shots that could have been filmed in Afghanistan or Iraq, as if the war had never went away.
The opening sequence, which shows a soldier rejoining his wife and children, is at once moving and haunting, with Rym Debbarh-Mounir’s sound design building to a high-pitched mechanical lull that undercuts the otherwise happy homecoming. Other scenes are highlighted by Colin Leveque’s precise and distant framing, offering up iconic images of an American nowheresville where the Marines make the most of their extended furloughs, even if their expressions betray anything but peace.
Indeed, there are times when the filmmakers seem to be deliberately zeroing in on moments of boredom and quiet desperation, whereas one can imagine that not all soldiers experience their leaves that way. (Early on, one recruit makes reference to a weekend of “pizza, beer and pussy” in Vegas, but that’s about as good as it gets.)
Yet despite the overall forlornness, Wisshaupt-Claudel manages to convey something truthful about the daily grind of the military, in a place where everyone seems to be awaiting the next call to battle. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the two scenes – one at the beginning and one toward the end – where a Marine takes his stuff out of a storage unit, only to put it all back a few months later. It’s as if he’d never been home at all, or as if home were just a parentheses in a life on permanent hold.
Production companies: Cellulo Prod, Les Productions du Verger
Director: Lydie Wisshaupt-Claudel
Producers: Aurelien Leveque, Sebastien Teot, Joachim Thome, Jerome Laffont
Director of photography: Colin Leveque
Editor: Meline Van Aelbrouck
Sound editor: Rym Debbarh-Mounir
No rating, 88 minutes