Spencer (Finn Wittrock), a Marine fresh off his third tour of duty in Afghanistan comes back home to his loving family, gregarious (if hard-drinking) buddies, and devoted girlfriend (Jessy Schram). But he is, as movie soldiers so often are, haunted by visions of combat, particularly a woman in a burqa. He finds himself alienated from his family, drawn more to a quiet job at a bookstore owner by a veteran. Here he meets Alice (Emilie de Ravin), whose name signals the through-the-looking-glass turns Spencer’s story will take. The two strike up a quick, but just as quickly Spencer is pummeling a partygoer to a pulp and driving his car off the road into a lake.
From here, “The Submarine Kid” takes a magical/fabulistic turn through which Spencer’s life intersects with a children’s story (also titled “The Submarine Kid”) written in the 1950s. Spencer is, like “Slaughterhouse-Five”’s Billy Pilgrim—another haunted soldier with a fragmented psyche—unstuck in time. This is a potentially rich vein from which to mine observations about the persistence of war, the contrast between naive hero worship and the grim realities of combat, and the internal tug-of-war of the returning soldier, but writer-director Eric Bilitch (making his feature debut) dramatizes this psychological conflict in terms of bland stereotypes. Bilitch’s direction is flat and his characters are conceived too broadly to connect.
The actors do their best, but they are asked to play impossibly generic roles. Spencer is a Soldier, not a fully formed person, and so Wittrock has no choice but to lapse into standard patterns of haunted-soldier behavior, including a lot of crying and breaking stuff and looking slightly uncomfortable when people try to tell him he needs help. There is, predictably, a Big Traumatic Event which has precipitated Spencer’s mental break, but this moment is provided without context or understanding and ends up registering as little more than a plot device. Alice is conceptualized a bit more distinctly, and Emilie de Ravin brings some much-needed personality to the role, but the genericness of the overall approach smothers any spark between her and Spencer.
For a magically-inclined story about a severe psychological break, “The Submarine Kid” is surprisingly linear, with no formal disruptions to upset the steady flow of narrative. The story is presented plainly and linearly. The form (the shots, the staging, the arrangement of scenes) would be just as suitable for a lighthearted romantic comedy as it is for this ostensible psychological drama. The film frequently becomes languorous and dull, revealing the solutions to its central mysteries long before the credits roll. It would be interesting to see this movie radically recut (something like what Steven Soderbergh did to “The Limey”). While I’m not sure any amount of editing could completely transform this material—the footage is too drab, the characters too shallow—a significant overhaul could make this a significantly more interesting film.