Tuesday, December 23, 2014
2014 at the Movies: The Battery
(Spoilers ahead. Please proceed with caution.)
The zombie milieu has been exhaustively mined for creative and commercial gold in the last decade, from AMC’s original series The Walking Dead to epic blockbuster fare such as World War Z (2013).
Certainly, even a dedicated filmmaker would be hard-pressed to come up with a new dramatic angle for the depiction of the zombie apocalypse at this juncture.
Yet the micro-budgeted The Battery (2013) manages just that feat.
The film -- which plays on the baseball concept of “the battery” (the power generated by a pitcher and catcher working together) -- is an intimate, male-bonding film that might have been made by Kevin Smith had he thought of the concept before first time director Jeremy Gardner did.
What I mean by that comparison is that The Battery absolutely nails the lingo and interplay of disenfranchised young men, and concerns like Clerks (1993) a “buddy” relationship wherein one guy has a problem because of his philosophy of life, and the other guy tries to relieve him of that problem, even if the help isn’t wanted, let alone solicited.
Like Clerks, The Battery also carries abundant verbal allusions to our collective pop culture, and is packed, front-to-back, with great indie music.
What feels so remarkable about The Battery, however, is that it creates and maintains throughout its running time an authentic sense of danger and horror. Where the events of Clerks undoubtedly felt like life and death to Dante and Randal, the events of The Battery are literally life-and-death for the two friends depicted here: Ben (Jeremy Gardner) and Mickey (Adam Cronheim).
Accordingly, The Battery culminates in a remarkable final act, one which settles down into one (cramped) location, and, for much of its duration, consists of a single camera set-up or shot. In this case, we witness Ben and Mickey trapped in the back-seat of a car as zombies surround it and increase their number over a period of days. There is no escape, no relief, and, finally -- in this crucible of survival -- Mickey and Ben reflect on their journey.
Gardner’s clever, intense and uncluttered visual approach to the material not only generates suspense, much as a similar shot in a tent did in the recent Willow Creek (2014), but permits audiences to feel and appreciate the ebb and flow of the Mickey/Ben friendship all the more deeply.
Shot in just fifteen days, and for six thousand dollars, The Battery is a film that sneaks up on you, winning you over a scene at a time, a joke at a time, and a set-piece at a time. It is engaging, smart, and a breath of fresh air in a sub-genre that risks, even yet, over-exposure. About half way through a viewing of The Battery you’ll realize that your defenses are down, and that the movie has affected you in ways you couldn’t possibly have foreseen when you began it.
“We’re not going anywhere. That’s the point.”
Sometime after the zombie apocalypse, former baseball team-mates Mickey (Cronheim) and Ben (Jeremy Gardner) aimlessly cross the countryside trying to survive. They move from house to house, woods to woods, finding supplies whenever and wherever they can.
Some tensions arise, however, in their relationship, because Mickey refuses to kill any zombies himself, or even prepare his own food. Ben worries that if something happens to him, Mickey won’t stand a chance in the new world order. Mickey would rather tune out with his head-phones and music than confront, head-on, the danger they face on a daily basis.
One day, after acquiring walkie-talkies, Mickey overhears a transmission from an outpost called the Orchard, and a woman named Annie. He wants to go in search of her, and the compound, so as to return to human civilization, but Ben seems more afraid of the living than of the dead…
“Nobody’s going to flip the switch back on.”
I suspect that if Kevin Smith imagined the zombie apocalypse on film, the result might look and feel somewhat like The Battery. There’s a lot of funny back-and-forth dialogue between the two male-leads here, and references, even, to Jaws (1975), one of Smith’s favorite films.
In particular, The Battery references the famous Indianapolis scene on the Orca, and the moments there of male bonding between Brody, Hooper, and Quint. That’s an appropriate call-back since The Battery is very much about male bonding, and about the inter-personal dynamic between Mickey and Ben. The other horror film referenced in The Battery -- Tremors (1990) -- similarly is a kind of male-bonding effort, though in that case between Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward’s dim-witted characters, Val and Earl. But through its allusions, The Battery specifically asks audiences to remember great friendships/teams in horror movies past, and then examine Mickey and Ben in the same light.
As was the case in Clerks, The Battery concerns one world-weary or cynical character (Randal/Ben), who attempts to resolve the existential crisis of his friend, the Dante/Mickey character. In the case of Dante, he had to shit or get off the pot, to quote the film’s dialogue. Dante had to decide what he was going to do with his life -- work, school, marriage, whatever-- and commit to it rather than complain about it (“I’m not even supposed to be here today!”). Mickey in The Battery experiences a similar but not identical problem. He can’t let the old, pre-zombie world go, and, in fact tries to blot out the present. As Ben realizes, this is a dangerous tendency, and a real problem.
Mickey lives his life now inside his ear-phones, constantly listening to his favorite music on a CD player. He stubbornly refuses to partake in the day-to-day requirements for survival. For example, Ben does the fishing, and tells Mickey that it might be a “nice trick” for him to learn. Similarly, as the opening scene reveals, Mickey doesn’t do any of the zombie killing himself. He just stands around, head-phones on, grooving to his tunes. Ben tries to warn him that “those things” (the headphones) are going “to kill” him, but Mickey doesn’t want to hear it.
One brilliantly inventive and very funny scene in The Battery actually finds Mickey masturbating in the back of the car while a female zombie (breasts visible) paws at the window just inches away. Even then -- when confronted with a monster that wants to kill him -- Mickey won’t put aside his fantasy existence and confront reality as it is.
My favorite visualization in the film, however, finds Mickey hanging up blankets and towels over all the car windows when he is trapped inside it at another juncture. He believes he can put up make-shift curtains, and deny the existence of the world right outside his window. This is a perfect visual explanation of his world view. Hang up curtains, and forget that zombies are drooling at the windows. What you deny, or don’t acknowledge can’t hurt you, right?
By contrast, Ben is eminently more practical in his approach to life. He knows how to survive, and is constantly “aware” of all that his happening around him. He has embraced “the hunter-gatherer” life-style not because he is a tough guy or a survivalist, but perhaps because -- in his capacity as a catcher -- he is used to life throwing curve-balls at him.
Ben attempts to help Mickey confront his life as it is now (and will be, going forward…) and in one scene takes that quest much too far, endangering Mickey’s life in the process. But Ben wants Mickey to survive, and that point is abundantly clear even when he makes a mistake.
But Ben is not perfect, as his mistake reveals. He is cynical and cruel at times, and he believes he knows best how Mickey should live. He expects the worst of people, and there is some part of him that would rather deal with zombies than with the possibility of other survivors, people who might interrupt the life (with Mickey) he feels he has now mastered.
This odd-couple dynamic eventually comes down to Mickey and Ben’s feelings about women. Mickey ends up talking on a walkie-talkie to a stranger named Annie, and Ben says Mickey imagines her as a “post-apocalyptic pixie girl” with a scar that doesn’t diminish her good looks, and a holster on her (shapely) hips.
Ben’s visualization is a lot less romantic (a heavy-set “bull-dyke,” to quote the film precisely) but the conversation points out, once more, the very real contrast between friends; between Mickey’s fantasy-life or romanticism and Ben’s realism/cynicism. Yet the surprising and nice thing about The Battery is that at critical junctures it leaves open the possibility that life could pitch that proverbial curve ball at either Mickey or Ben…and Annie proves to be one of them.
And what’s also ironic and touching about The Battery is that, from a certain perspective Ben (like Randal in Clerks) is perhaps a bit romantic about one particular thing: his relationship with his friend. I don’t mean “romantic” literally in this sense, but rather that Ben believes they are best friends, and this isn’t exactly so. In a heart-breaking scene, Mickey reveals to Annie that it isn’t really that way at all; that he and Ben travel together out of circumstances and twists of fate, but not what he considers true friendship. Instead, they are, in Mickey’s words “from different social circles.” That phrase hurts almost as much as a zombie bite.
Ben doesn’t see it this way, and the last moments in the film serve as powerful (and indeed, emotional) reminders of how much he needs Mickey in his life. The protector must have someone to protect, after all. The buddy must have his best friend, or it all falls apart. You can’t have a guy like Randal or Ben without a Dante or Mickey, or they have no purpose any more, no reason to live.
Once more, this notion is reflected in the title and the film’s central metaphor, that of the baseball battery. A battery requires a catcher and a pitcher. The “battery” is a combination of their two strengths, working in unison. Subtract one piece, and the battery is dead.
The Battery remains so impressive a work of art because it isn’t afraid to go to some legitimately surprising and uncomfortable places. I mentioned the masturbation scene above, and it’s some kind of bizarre high-water mark for the genre, something that, in the moment, seems if not inevitable at least understandable, given male nature.
And the film’s final act, set in the car interior with zombies clawing at the exterior, reveals a confidence not often seen in first-time filmmakers. Another filmmaker might feel the necessity to move out of that car, to open up the story, to change the scenery. The Battery just stays there, night and day, as food and water run out, and Mickey and Ben grow ever more desperate and despondent. The siege set-up goes all the way back to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), of course, but rarely in a zombie movie have we stayed in such a restrictive siege scenario -- a cramped back-seat -- for such a duration. Yet it works beautifully, and answers all our questions about the Mickey and Ben friendship.
The Battery’s denouement can be interpreted from two perspectives, simultaneously. The first is that Mickey has finally become the friend Ben hoped he would be, and has taken on the responsibility for the battery’s survival. He has grown into the friend Ben desired him to be. The second is that Ben has failed his best friend, and coddled him too much, because Mickey is not, clearly, ready to take on the challenge the world puts before him.
In efforts such as World War Z we’ve seen the zombie film go big and spectacular, and even watched ghoul hordes climb walls hundreds of feet high, resembling nothing so much as teeming ants on a hill. Yet the zero-budget The Battery achieves more with so much less by adopting the opposite tack; by tracking the simple story of two buddies and their remarkable friendship as the zombie apocalypse endures. The Battery goes small and intimate, and in the process absolutely hits one out of the park.