First time director Ryan Redford’s Oliver Sherman starts with a veteran named Sherman Oliver (the film’s title is derived from a bureaucratic screwup that Sherman relays anecdotally later on), arriving in an unnamed small town in an unnamed state by bus. Sherman (Garret Dillahunt) bears the scar of the war (which one is never stated), both literally and figuratively. He bears a nasty scar atop his skull from where he got shot in the war, and he’s never truly recovered. He speaks slowly, and appears to be somewhat dim and unsure. Sherman eventually arrives unannounced and unexpected at the home of Franklin (Donal Logue), the man who ended up saving his life, and without too much ado, ends up staying with him and his wife Irene (Molly Parker) and their young son.
From there, we begin to see that the war has affected these two men in very different ways. Franklin has finally made peace with himself — he’s got a house, a job, a wonderful wife and a charming, shy child. He’s still got the occasional demon rattling around in his head, but his new life is able to keep it at bay. Sherman, on the other hand, has never rebounded from his wartime experiences. He drifts aimlessly, drinks heavily, and never even really tries to find a place in the world — he can’t imagine a scenario where he’d feel normal, despite his not-so-secretly coveting the life that Franklin has. But the two become unlikely friends, until the hornets that buzz around inside Sherman begin to break free, and he starts to slowly unravel, and his actions begin to fracture the surprisingly delicate world that Franklin has created for himself.
And here’s the part where I tell you about how Sherman becomes a menace and torments and tortures Franklin’s family, right? Except that writer/director Redford (who based the screenplay loosely on Rachel Ingalls’ short story Veterans) is far too clever and subtle for such crass and predictable devices. Instead, Oliver Sherman is a torturous exercise in slowly burning unease. There’s never a breaking point, never a bloody, grisly climax. It’s not about that — it’s about these two men and how they can possibly come to terms with what they were, and what they’ve become. What makes the film so fascinating is that there’s a sense of sadness and dread that pervades every scene, a sense that this quiet, introspective film is heading towards an unavoidable and heartbreaking tragedy. We’re forced to look deep into both of them, as well as Molly, who straddles the line between being slightly manipulative, and perhaps simply more perceptive than her husband when it comes to Sherman.
It’s a beautifully shot film that takes advantage of its heartland settings, giving each frame a sort of dusty, dusky hue. The tension and unease is accented by the almost complete lack of a score — dramatic effect is created by the actors, by their words and tone and carriage, rather than by predetermined musical cues. What little music there is is nothing more than the occasional almost discordant plunking of piano keys, used more to create mood in the film’s quieter moments.
Dillahunt is just brilliant as Sherman Oliver. There’s no debating it — it’s a beautiful yet profoundly unsettling performance. His slow, careful stammer, his clear discomfort around anyone other than Franklin, and his occasional dark, almost feral stares are both chilling and forlorn. Perhaps most interestingly was Redford’s decision to give away little of Sherman’s past. So when Sherman begins to dissociate, when his temper flares and he begins to turn on everything around him (but always with a solemn freakish subtlety), we are left to decide: what made him? Was it the war? The damage to his brain? Or was he always this way? These questions are all part of what makes the film so effective and affecting.
Logue and Parker both perform admirably. Molly Parker takes a relatively simplistic role, that of the mother protector, and infuses it with heart and a frantic tension as she goes from confusion to mistrust to helpless anger, both at Sherman as well as at her husband for his accepting him into their home. Logue performs his part solidly, if unspectacularly, but his is the one that requires the least cinematic deftness. But it’s unquestionably Dillahunt’s movie, and he owns every second that he’s in it.
Oliver Sherman is one of those quiet films that comes out of nowhere and gutpunches you. It’s amazing that a film with no action, no violence, no scares or manipulation, can leave an audience in such a cold sweat. You’ll find yourself knotted with tension throughout its brisk 82 minutes, which is a notable achievement given the film’s deliberate pacing and almost stolid atmosphere. Redford has created something remarkable with Oliver Sherman. It’s a terrifying, tragic and at times skin-crawlingly creepy film that takes a completely apolitical look at two radically different post-war veteran experiences, and exposes some truly unnerving possibilities, while simultaneously managing to deliver a bit of hope.