DIRECTED BY: Steven Wright
FEATURING: Steven Wright, Sandi Carroll
PLOT: A Civil War soldier looks back upon his life and contemplates the nature of human existence in the days leading up to his execution for murder.
COMMENTS: For years, Steven Wright built his comedy empire on peerless one-liners that required 5 seconds to fully sink in and another 30 to stop laughing. Long before successors like Mitch Hedberg and Demetri Martin picked up the torch, Wright was unspooling hour-long sets built out of dozens upon dozens of jokes that lay like unexploded mines waiting to go off. It’s frankly all I can do to resist the temptation to just spend the whole review quoting him. (I’ll allow myself this one famous joke for the unacquainted: “I spilled spot remover on my dog… and now he’s gone.”) This earned him many opportunities to apply his hangdog stare and drier-than-the-Sahara monotone to a variety of projects as a supporting actor and voice artist, but there have been fewer opportunities to try to translate his voice as a writer to the screen. In 1988, he wrote, produced, and starred in “The Appointments of Dennis Jennings,” the tale of a hapless psychiatric patient that earned Wright that year’s Academy Award for live-action short. That success under his belt, he then waited 11 years to make another short, this time assuming the director’s mantle as well.
The initial joke is that, even though his milieu is now the American Civil War, Steven Wright in a Union uniform is still Steven Wright. The elements are in place for a “Drunk History”-style collision of history and comedy, as mournful violins accompany Wright’s walks through an empty New England landscape. But when he launches into his narration in his classic disaffected drone, the subject matter is immediately more philosophical, touching on the inscrutability of life and the inevitability of death. Soon enough, his wife Becky joins in with her own reflection, and each hints that his fate may already be sealed. Essentially, “One Soldier” is like if “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” were a comedy sketch.
Of course, Steven Wright can’t not be funny, or at least not indulge his quirkier side. Particularly as regards his fate, which he anticipates by plucking petals off a flower. Even his deepest musings are tinged with silliness, like his recollections of his job in the war, playing the concertina to soothe the nerves of the top brass. A heartwarming reunion with his wife is tempered somewhat by his insistence on wearing a harmonica, even during intimate moments. And there’s a comedian’s love of the absurd, best typified by this line of dialogue which is no less bizarre when heard in context: “When she said the number 25 in German, it drove me wild.”
Wright’s soldier is a philosopher who hasn’t done the work and doesn’t have the language to describe the uncertainties he feels. That makes “One Soldier” a most unusual vanity project: it can’t carry the burden of the weighty issues it confronts, so it leans into that weakness. But there’s still something haunting that comes through, perhaps best exemplified by the film’s final thoughts: “First you don’t exist, then you exist, then you don’t exist. So this whole thing is just an interruption from not existing.” Steven Wright finds the comedy in the tragic notion that a person’s last thought on this earth is that he’s been thinking too much about the meaning of life.
“One Soldier” is available as a bonus feature on “When the Leaves Blow Away,” a recording of a one-hour Wright stand-up set from 2007.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“It is a fine blend of deep theological ponderings, modern Zen koans, and comic schtick. Like Wright’s live stand-up, the film’s slow pace and ponderous subject matter have a rather hypnotic effect, drawing one into the skewed reality of Wright’s brilliant mind.” – J. C. Shakespeare, Austin Chronicle (contemporaneous)
(This movie was nominated for review by RobinHoodsun, who mused “it was very very weird and it left me with a starnge feeling lol.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)