If the fallout from selfless heroism is tough ground to navigate, the Iraq War drama “Thank You for Your Service” boasts experienced guides in Miles Teller and writer-director Jason Hall. Teller comes to the film straight from the wildland firefighter biopic “Only the Brave.” Hall, meanwhile, makes his directorial debut after earning an adapted screenplay Oscar nod for “American Sniper.”
Based on journalist David Finkel’s book, “Service” doesn’t plumb the same labyrinthine psychological depths as “Sniper” in its portrayal of soldiers struggling to reacclimate to civilian life. Teller and company go to dark places — free-falling desperation, suicidal impulses — but their journey is simpler, less unnervingly primal. The new film’s greatest resonance, instead, lies in quiet moments spent – or wasted? – in the purgatory of Veterans Affairs offices and waiting rooms, where hope of rescue can sometimes appear fainter than in enemy ambush territory.
Teller plays Army sergeant Adam Schumann, introduced in an opening combat sequence that climaxes with him tumbling down a stairwell, losing hold of the gruesomely wounded comrade slung over his shoulder. It seems Adam has regained his grip as we cut to his arrival back home in the Midwest along with fellow unit members Solo (Beulah Koale) and Will (Joe Cole). Not so fast, though: Adam’s concerned wife (Haley Bennett, “The Girl on the Train”) correctly senses that he’s bottling up his experience. Solo is secretly bent on serving another tour, frightened that his scrambled faculties preclude a normal family life with his own wife (Keisha Castle-Hughes, “Whale Rider”). And engaged Will’s plans for the future unravel completely.
The trio’s most dramatically volatile scenes aren’t the story’s best, capably played though they are. It’s harrowing to watch Teller take shotgun in hand out in deer country and elsewhere — is this where that “Whiplash” intensity will finally break loose? — but these also come across as movie moments. (Amy Schumer’s surprising, fleeting turn as a war widow escapes the list of narratively self-conscious elements; between her restraint and minimal makeup, she might go unrecognized if the cameo was unbilled.)
What’s most compelling is the near-documentary quality of Teller, Koale, and Bennett’s characters playing against a VA backdrop of prosthetic limbs and catheter bags, of desensitized clerks and overwhelmed therapists. “This [expletive] could give me PTSD,” Teller aptly cracks. Their collective search for help is filled with bureaucratic frustration that couldn’t feel more thankless, and a requisite perseverance that rings true.
THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE
Directed and written by Jason Hall, based on the book by David Finkel. Starring Miles Teller, Beulah Koale, Haley Bennett, Joe Cole. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 108 minutes. R (strong violent content, language throughout, some sexuality, drug material, brief nudity).Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.