The personalities of two former baseball players clash as they traverse the rural back roads of a post-plague New England teeming with the undead.
Glancing at past reviews, I fear I’ve grown a tad jaded towards zombie movies. Like Glenn Beck offering his personal opinions on an episode of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” I may no longer lay claim to the one tentative thread of objectivity I had to begin with. In all honesty, I’ve always felt the way of the walking dead was a rather pedestrian path to take for any film maker, whether sporting a huge Hollywood budget or only a few extra bones in the pocket and a dream. Despite the impressive visual invention I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing throughout the years, not a single zombie flick had spoken to me on a personal level since the first time I stole terrified glances through my chubby child’s fingers at Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” longer ago than I care to recall. The decades since have elicited only reactions, no true emotions. Until now.
An archaic baseball term, a “battery” refers to the collective defensive team of the pitcher and catcher. Not unlike much of the sport, there’s a historic mythology behind this relationship that goes beyond the word, and one of the many layers to be peeled away in “The Battery.” Made over the course of days for $6,000 (I suspect half of that went to the cigarette budget), we follow Mickey (producer Adam Cronheim) and Ben (writer/director/producer Jeremy Gardner), the pitcher and catcher respectively, as they traverse the New England countryside in a freshly apocalyptic world inhabited almost entirely by living dead. They were formerly professional minor league ballplayers, stuck together in Connecticut after a disasterous winter at a safe house following the outbreak. That is all we know, and all “Battery” ever cares to divulge. Mickey escapes the present scenario through his retro headphones, which are a constant accessory. Like “the boy” in Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” (the novel, not the crappy movie), he holds on to hope despite the odds. Ben, on the other hand, is a realist who has accepted these conditions with almost open arms, keeping an ongoing tally of his kills. There is nothing vindictive nor nihilistic behind his actions, however. He sees it as ending suffering, and perceives the situation as merely what is, never looking back on what was. It’s a fascinating contrast of characters, explored so deeply you’ll feel as though you’re eavesdropping at times.
That’s it. That’s the entire production, in 400 words. End of story. Now comes the fun as I elaborate.
What “Battery” accomplishes with its limited means is nothing short of a minor cinematic miracle. Brilliantly meandering in ways that called to mind the experimentation of the late 60’s to early 70’s (see “Easy Rider” or “Wake in Fright”) and boasting a character-driven, almost improvisational and darkly comedic core, this is the case study of a love-it-or-hate-it experience. Often wordless and driven by Mickey’s relentless indie rock mix, we watch these two go about the mundane daily activities that would emcompass this life. When they stumble across a radio transmission between a man (voice of Larry Fessenden, adding street cred) and woman belonging to an organized outpost called The Orchard, Mickey believes his prayers for some semblance of a normal life are answered. Ben teases mercilessly, accusing him of harboring a crush on the female radio voice (Alana O’Brien). This hilarious exchange, like many others throughout, would seem more befitting a Judd Apatow production that a somber horror flick (Ben: “Do you know the difference between you and me?” Mickey: “What, that I’m not an asshole?”), but flow as smoothly as the scenery.
Gardner’s use of extended one-take shots is the artistic aspect of “Battery” that will divide the masses most emphatically. Some last for entire minutes, relying on the carefully selected tunes and actors’ body language to convey the emotions of a scene. The music plays a character itself, as much as I’ve experienced since Zach Braff’s “Garden State” in 2004. From bands I can’t believe I’ve ever lived without such as Rock Plaza Central and Sun Hotel, this in one great soundtrack. It’s all for naught if you don’t care for our central battery, however. Cronheim and Gardner, friends since childhood, have constructed two wonderfully nuanced dudes in Mickey and Ben. Though Cronheim stumbles a little in his more angrily defiant moments, when he is dwindled to a crying, hopeless shell of a man, he nails it. Ben is summed up beautifully in Gardner’s performance shortly after Mickey’s breakdown, in an attempt to lift his pal’s spirits during a game of catch.
They’re a dynamite team, which is all that matters in essentially a two-person drama. Trapped within the confines of a station wagon, surrounded by constantly moaning zombies, we grow to admire these two as they have grown to become friends. The culmination of this montage, as they get plastered the night before they have to make a break for it, is a lovely tip-of-the hat to “Jaws” in more ways than one. Once the barely conscious Mickey and Ben begin singing “Show Me the Way to Go Home,” referencing the iconic non-horror scene from Spielberg’s classic complete with the camera tilting and swaying like a rocking boat, “Battery” wears its intentions on its sleeve. It was a small moment in “Jaws” that will forever live on in the hearts of its adorers. “Battery” is made up almost entirely of such moments.
Given the simple fact that there are very few scares and a whole lot of artsy-fartsy bromance going on here, I did something I’ve never done before putting pen to paper and scrawling out a rough draft for a review. I watched “The Battery” again. Surely, I was merely stoned more than usual and caught up in the cool music and lovely shots of trees and stuff, not truly a fan of this nonsense? Seriously, an unbroken sequence of two grimy guys brushing their teeth? The entire finale occurring off screen, as one of the leads chain-smokes and listens to the chaos outside? This movie doesn’t flirt with self-indulgence, it impregnates it behind the bleachers after the big Homecoming Dance. It couldn’t possibly be how memory had framed it. Well, it wasn’t, friends. Damn it, the thing was even better the second time around.
I still maintain my stance. To hell with zombies. This movie isn’t even about the damn zombies. Describing it as a great film within the flimsy confines of this woefully abused sub-genre is a disservice I refuse to perform. “The Battery” is a great film. Period. See it twice.