The adjective “slow-burning” is entirely inadequate to describe “Echoes of War,” a tale of simmering tension in post-Civil War Texas that spends so much time generating mood that it very nearly forgets the importance of plot. Presumably the film intends to point toward the traumatic impact of contemporary warfare on today’s soldiers through a nineteenth-century analogue, but it could certainly have done a better job of it.
James Badge Dale stars as Wade, a Confederate veteran returning to his late sister’s family in Texas. His brother-in-law Seamus Riley (Ethan Embry) is a hardworking farmer and an extremely pious man, using the Bible as his beacon in raising his children Abigail (Maika Monroe) and Samuel (Owen Teague). The taciturn Seamus welcomes Wade back, but it’s young Sam who’s most happy to have his idolized uncle with them again.
But there’s trouble on the drab little farm. The Riley’s animal traps are being poached by the McCluskey clan next door, who live in an opulent mansion but have lost their cattle to army requisition. Patriarch Randolph (William Forsythe) is a gruff, menacing fellow, who encourages his addled older son Dillard (Ryan O’Nan) in his theft of game from the Rileys. And though he takes gentle care of his wife Doris (Beth Broderick), who’s fallen into dementia as a result of another son’s death in the war, he treats his youngest boy Marcus (Rhys Wakefield), a sensitive, pacific lad, with undisguised contempt.
Though Seamus accepts the loss of the family’s food as a burden to be borne stoically—apparently he feels a debt to McCluskey for helping during his wife’s illness—Wade, tormented by the war’s effects and having difficulty controlling his violent urges, is angered by it and, against Seamus’ will decides to confront Randolph. It isn’t hard to foresee that a confrontation is inevitable, and that more death is imminent. The situation is even more volatile because Abigail and Marcus are carrying on a secret romance and Wade finds out about it.
“Echoes of War” finally rouses itself for a finale that has some action, though even then it must invest it with meaning, beginning with the death of the character you expect to die from the first moment he appears and then proceeding to several others. The denouement apparently wants to say something about ending the cycle of violence that war breeds, but it’s a ham-fisted choice.
The acting by Dale, Forsythe and Embry is decent enough, but the remainder of the cast is fairly amateurish, especially Teague, who seems terrified by any dialogue that extends beyond a few words. But even the veterans are defeated by characters that never develop beyond sketchiness and the ponderous direction by Kane Senes, under whose leaden hand they must brood interminably. Those deliberate scenes might have been less irksome if they were filmed with any sort of visual panache, but Hanan Townshend’s cinematography is bland, failing to make use of whatever nice features the locations might offer. The other craft contributions are similarly mediocre.
One can give “Echoes of War” credit for trying to make a meaningful statement about the long-term effects of combat and the strains it puts on the social fabric, rather than simply being a mindless shoot-’em-up. But though serious-minded, it’s a turgid, pretentious attempt at an adult western.