"Leave Me Behind" Review by Larry Lange February 25, 2008 Writer-Director: Kirk Gostkowski Cast: Kirk Gostkowski, Kirsten Scoles, Melissa Haley Smith, Adam Newman, Kenny Briggs, Dan Rice, Kylie Erin Donovan Unrated
Movie-goers are well-versed with the traumatic effects of war on the military young. It's a tradition that harkens back to the '30s with "All Quiet on the Western Front" - to the '70s with "The Deer Hunter" - right up to the recent spate of those set inside the Iraq conflict.
But the new independent film, "Leave Me Behind" (Running On Faith Productions) - powerfully captures the debilitating effects of modern war on one Marine - this time before he sees a single firefight.
Newcomer Kirk Gostkowski stars in the film, and is also making his directorial debut here - and he's clearly squeezed the blood out of a constricted budget to make a tightly-wound and wrenching classic.
Uniquely, Gostkowski's film focuses on the psyche of Christian Keller, a 21-year-old husband and father - and trained-up Marine – who is on a three-day leave in New Jersey before he's stationed off to Iraq.
During those three days, we follow Keller - who is convinced he will die in combat - on his own harrowing mission to confront his family and friends - and himself - to tell the truths he'd camouflaged for years.
Gostkowski's characterization is a tour de force. While he carries a commanding presence - his body looks the part of a cut Marine - his sensitive face and melancholic hooded eyes allow him to paint Keller multi- dimensionally - from darkly introspective to overtly menacing to abruptly abusive.
His wife of their shotgun-marriage, Jackie - expertly played by Kirsten Scoles - tries desperately to support her pent-up husband - while burning through her own angst about her suspicions that her husband stills bears a torch for an ex-girlfriend. Scoles' portrayal off a military wife with a young child stuck in working-class Jersey (without the Springsteen anthemics) - is striking. The scenes between herself and Gostkowski - as they flail to pull love out of their loveless marriage - feel like they were filmed by a hidden camera pinned on a tumultuous young couple.
And Keller's wife has a right to her concerns. When his old flame, Alicia, does arrive on the scene - played with finely-tuned sexuality by the charismatic Melissa Haley Smith - the tension over the pair's unfinished relationship is palpable.
All of Keller's Jersey buddies are superbly portrayed as well - most notably Mike (Adam Newman), Kevin (Kenny Briggs) and Joey (Dan Rice) - as they work through their emotions with Keller over his impending transport to war. The schoolyard scene with the gang traversing through their pointed feelings with Keller - is one of the highlights of the film.
Director-star Gostkowski also coaxed one of the better performances out of a child actor I've seen in years (the doe-eyed intuitive, Kylie Erin Donovan). Donovan even edges toward scene-stealing - especially during the finale.
The film's original music is perfect throughout. The rock group Light Up Nancy captures the mood of the gang's boozy bar nights - and Kenny Briggs' acoustic number, "Father," which closes the film - goes right for the gut.
Kudos to director of photography Kevin Rosenberg, executive producer, Kieran Dotti - and Kirk Gostkowski himself - for capturing the hauntingly gritty look of the Hal Ashby's 1973 classic "The Last Detail" - which works here to give the film a dose of modern-day cinéma-vérité.
"Leave Me Behind" is an important work that transcends the anti-war genre - and should be included in that lofty canon alongside "The Deer Hunter," "The Last Detail" and "Coming Home." It may be yet. The film was recently chosen to be showcased at the Big Muddy Film Festival in Southern Illinois (now in its 30th year).
------------------- Larry Lange is author of The Beatles Way: Fab Wisdom for Everyday Life, a perennial seller in six languages. As a journalist, Lange has reported for the world's leading business and technology publishers including CNET and CMP. He's also written for Newsday and Forbes, and for the music publications Hit Parader, Mix and Goldmine. http://www.larrylange.blogspot.com/