Post traumatic stress disorder is a condition that’s highly individualized, and a person who served two tours in Afghanistan can have a very different experience from a person who experienced domestic violence. That also means that PTSD depicted in movies isn’t always recognized as the real thing.
I understand that a certain amount of artistic license is taken sometimes by filmmakers. There are absolutely serious examinations of PTSD in films like The Hurt Locker, Ordinary People, and Mystic River. It can also be a feature of a character or a plot point in a film, and it can be portrayed semi-accurately within a film designed to be largely entertaining. Movies like First Blood, Iron Man Three, and The Fisher King all prominently feature PTSD, and they’re all movies primarily designed as entertainments.*
I bring all of that up to mention two things. First, I’m one hundred percent fine with serious concepts mixed freely within genre films. Absolutely anything is okay, as long as it’s motivated by intelligence and respect. Second, I’ve seen enough films to know that a filmmaker can skillfully create a movie dealing with real issues, and yet, viewers like me struggle to connect with it. That’s where I am with Outpost, the directorial debut of actor Joe Lo Truglio,** a horror movie that digs deep into a life lived with PTSD.
We begin with an assault, a particularly vicious one. Kate (Beth Dover) is brutally beaten by her partner Mike (Tim Neff). She escapes. He vanishes. A part of her wants to move on, heal, figure out what her new life looks like. But how is she supposed to do that when she sees Mike’s face in every interaction with a man?
The first thing Kate needs is a place where she can get a little peace, and she has an idea. Her best friend Nickie (Ta’Rea Campbell) has a brother, Earl (Ato Essandoh). Earl works for the forestry service in Idaho, and his department needs help. Specifically, a volunteer to live in a remote fire tower for three months.
The job is simple. All Kate has to do is check in first thing in the morning, keep an eye on the surrounding mountains for smoke, and check in again during the afternoon. You could see how it would be a position conducive to peace and quiet, just the thing for a person looking to heal.
And yet, it isn’t. Kate gets herself settled in at the fire tower. She senses Earl has his own demons he’s grappling with, as does Reggie (Dylan Baker), a crusty widower who’s Kate’s nearest neighbor. At least solo hiker Bertha (Becky Ann Baker) is there to act as a friend and confidant. It should be enough for Beth, and yet, it isn’t. She hears the cries of rabbits savaged by coyotes. She sees things that aren’t real. Then her downward spiral begins in earnest.
By all rights I should love Outpost. Joe Lo Truglio has made an efficient thriller that looks fantastic despite its modest budget. He’s a smart director and he knows that shooting in the wild mountainous country serves to boost both his production budget and Kate’s sense of isolation. Speaking of which, we see how she’s affected by both the isolation and her trauma, resulting in severe hallucinations. Good filmmaking puts us in the headspace of the protagonist, and Lo Truglio shows us how it’s done.
Where I run into problems is with Lo Truglio’s screenplay. The problem isn’t with the quality, as the script structure is sound and the pacing works. He knows when to slow down so we can get to know the characters and when to stomp on the gas in the horror sequences. The problem, I suspect, is a me problem. I can’t get into it unless I ruin a twist. For a quick moment, let’s venture into spoiler territory. If you’d rather not be spoiled, just skip the next paragraph.
SUPER MASSIVE UNBREAKABLE SPOILER WALL!
During the first two acts, Kate struggles with her mental health and her duties at the fire tower. We’re led to believe that while she’s grappling with her PTSD, she might also be stalked by her evil ex Mike. Then, Lo Truglio yanks the rug out from under us! During the third act, Kate essentially suffers a psychotic break and starts killing the bejeezus out of a few characters. Mike never shows up; it’s just that Kate has collapsed. Can PTSD cause hallucinations? Sure. Can PTSD cause violence? It can, but my understanding is that the majority of folks with PTSD aren’t violent. It’s not that I don’t believe it could happen with Kate, it’s that the concept left a bad taste in my mouth. For two-thirds of the film, I got to know Kate and her struggles. I wanted her to heal. Instead, it’s like she formed a Lizzie Borden tribute band. How I felt isn’t the fault of the film. Like I said earlier, it’s a me problem, but it’s a problem all the same.
END SUPER MASSIVE UNBREAKABLE SPOILER WALL!
The other reason the film works as well as it does are the performances, particularly Beth Dover as Kate. Her performance is a skillful tightrope walk, since she needs to show Kate as funny, frightened, determined, spiraling. She can’t tilt too far in a single direction and she still has to demonstrate she’s playing the same character. It’s exceptional work, and I wish she’d be recognized during award seasons.*** By and large, her supporting cast play variations on a theme, the “damaged person escaping into the wild to heal.” Everyone from Dylan Baker’s cranky widower to the repressed rage of Ato Essandoh’s Earl fits that theme nicely.
Just because you don’t connect with a movie, it doesn’t necessarily mean the film is poorly made or “bad.” I was reminded of that lesson again with Outpost. It’s irrelevant that I had problems connecting to it. The fact remains that Joe Lo Truglio is a new voice in horror, one that’s thoughtful when necessary and always committed to going for your guts.
*Are PTSD and trauma the same thing? As far as I understand, no, but there’s a lot of overlap. Trauma refers to a life-threatening or awful experience someone has, and PTSD is a specific mental health diagnosis that can last longer than a month. Though don’t take my word for it, I’m just some jackass who writes about movies.
**If the name escapes you, he’s a skilled comic actor best known as Charles in Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
***I also know that performances in genre films, no matter how good they are, tend to be ignored in favor of more “respectable” work. Ever wonder why a film as tedious as The English Patient wins Oscars? That’s why.