Written and Directed by: Jeremy Gardner
Starring: Jeremy Gardner, Adam Cronheim, and Niels Bolle
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
In a land ravaged by the undead, Ben and Mickey must learn to survive each other.
With the undead having been completely overexposed during the last decade, The Battery arrives with arguably the most interesting and effective antidote for the zombie movie: push the zombies all the way into the background and use them as a means of gracefully exploring interpersonal human conflict, much like Romero once did. At times, The Battery doesnít feel like a zombie movie so much as it feels like a movie that just happens to have zombies in it.
And yet their presence is always felt in the form of the often bleak, meloncholy apocalypse theyíve caused. Itís a desolate landscape thatís had Ben and Mickey (Jeremy Gardner & Adam Cronheim) in a state of perpetual movement for months on end. Formerly a pair of baseball teammates (a catcher and a pitcher, respectivelyóthe titular battery), the two now only find themselves in a game of survival. Choosing to never to remain in one spot (even overnight), the duo moves through this wasteland with no direction in particular, at least until they overhear other survivors on a radio broadcast, a discovery that only serves to highlight the underlying tension between the two friends.
Or are they even friends? The implication here is that Ben and Mickey were never great friends despite being teammates, and indeed itís difficult to imagine them ever being quite close. While Mickey is a soulful, sentimental type who longs for real human interaction (especially the romantic type), Benís hardened, sarcastic exterior makes him the ideal survivor for the zombie apocalypse because heís completely shorn of nostalgia or sentimentóhe has essentially become a great white shark, a creature who thrives on pure survival instinct. Predictably, the two often clash, particularly over the issue of shelter: for Ben, itís not even a consideration, as heís more than content to literally ride out the apocalypse in a station wagon rather than settle down in a house (doing that only resulted in the death of their families, something Ben is always quick to remind Mickey about).
Despite this, The Battery is more of a hangout movie; while its two characters (who carry nearly the entire movie until some other characters interlope towards the end) do clash over this issue, they spend most of their time navigating the post-apocalyptic malaise doing mundane stuff, like fishing or procuring toothbrushes. Occasionally, the two will do something that seems momentous, like visiting Mickeyís ex-girlfriendís house, but even this is treated without too much sentiment, save for Mickeyís creepy panty-raiding (the first of two episodes that reveal his sexual hang-ups). Watching these two is still compelling, as The Battery is a fine example of a character study built on sturdy, lived-in performances. Cronheim does provide a somewhat spotty turn as the ultra-morose Mickey, but it feels appropriate that it seems like heís always this close to a complete breakdown; meanwhile, Gardner is much more assured as Ben, though thereís a hint of desperation lying just beneath the surfaceóheís mastered the art of callous, zombie apocalypse badass, but learning compassion is a lesson that still remains.
Meanwhile, the zombies are treated more of an impetus and an inconvenience early on, when theyíre merely obstacles for the two to mow down. More specifically, Ben mows them down, as Mickey has an aversion to killing the undead because they still seem too human. Itís another point of contention that illustrates Gardnerís (who wrote and directing in addition to starring) treatment of zombies to both illustrate the difference between these characters and cause tension between them. One of the filmís most harrowing scenes involves Ben locking Mickey into a room with a zombie so heíll finally be forced to dispose of one, and the fallout is gruesome and disturbing, as the former acts like a hardass dad or coach who just taught the latter a tough life lesson.
But even this incident isnít enough to drive a complete wedge between the two: more than anything, The Battery is a film about two guys who just canít quit each other, whether it be out of pragmatism or an inherent longing for the comforts of another human being. Itís the sort of film where triumphs lay in small moments, like the discovery of food or a round of batting practice using apples instead of baseballs. Such moments are often scored by the filmís fantastic soundtrack, which is composed of tunes that range from upbeat to melancholy, as the collection succinctly reflects the highs and lows of living in a zombie apocalypse. Rather than wallow in gloom and despair, The Battery is sometimes playful and imagines a world where folks wouldnít feel completely despondent. Itís like The Walking Dead without all of the goddamn melodrama.
Of course, Ben and Mickey eventually learn the same lesson as many of their zombie movie forbearers: the undead are horrifying, but the living are often worse. Their brief encounters with other humans are the lowest point on their journey (if one can call such aimlessness a journey at all, of course), with the lowest being their climactic confinement within their car. For several days, the two find themselves surrounded by a horde of zombies whose constant groans and wails score the scene and begin to drive the characters to madness (despite their best efforts to simply do what they always do: hang out in the face of impossible odds).
Again, the zombies here are largely unseen but manage to turn this station wagon into a crucible. Itís a master class in creating both claustrophobia and suspense, with the latter often being built on what is unseen (thereís a particularly daring gambit that keeps viewers hemmed up in the car while the climactic action occurs outside, an approach that ramps up the suspense to unbearable levels). The climax is fitting since so much of The Battery hinges on what goes unseen, including the zombies themselves for the most part. Itís the spaces left by these omissions that become fascinating, especially within the characters themselves, who begin to internalize and dismiss their turmoil at the height of their desperation, leaving viewers to realize the subtle changes within each man as they slowly become the best of each other.
Many of the filmís on-screen limitations are due to its extremely low budget: at $6,000, films are rarely as stripped down as this one, and even fewer manage to feel so incredibly assured. Thereís rarely a moment that Gardner isnít in complete control of the proceedings, whether heís masterfully capturing a long take or establishing the incongruently gorgeous scenery with crisp photography. With the exception of a few instances of spotty action, The Battery isnít even all that rough around the edges like so many other homespun movies (even describing the film in that fashion feels like a disservice considering the extremely amateur nature of such productions).
Few movies of this nature also manage to be almost immediately canonized as The Battery has been; after earning instant acclaim on the festival circuit back in 2012, Scream Factory eventually caught wind and earmarked it for one of their fine Blu-ray releases. Technically, itís not designated a Collectorís Edition release, but youíd never know that considering the extra features, which includes an outtake reel, a trailer, a featurette on the filmís soundtrack, and a commentary with Gardner, Cronheim, and DP Christian Stella. Serving as the centerpiece, however, is ďTools of Ignorance,Ē a 90-minute making-of documentary thatís both enlightening and candid. In addition to covering the obvious territory concerning the filmís production and release, the filmmakers explain that it wasnít always easy or harmonious. The result is something of a miracle, though: while Iím understandably excited about Gardnerís future work, Iím just appreciative that heís reinvigorated the genre with a zombie movie that may be the best of its kind since Shaun of the Dead. Itís no coincidence that both of those movies value actual characters over the undead. Buy it!
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