War may be hell but, as laid out in “The Cost of a Soul,” written and directed by Sean Kirkpatrick, the homefront isn’t so cool, either. Structured as an out of the frying pan and into the fire Grand Guignol, it tells the tale of two men from Philadelphia linked anonymously by a common mission in Iraq but who meet in an explosive, brutal series of tit-for-tat, inter-neighborhood reprisals. Studded with raw and powerful performances and direction that screams without success for order in a universe gone awry, it asks the too-little asked question: just what exactly are we fighting for if not for a better life at home?
Two young men, Tommy Donahue (Chris Kerson) and DD Davis (Will Blagrove), enlist to fight in Iraq, motivated more to escape the unfriendly fire in their ghetto Philadelphia hometown than by 9/11 patriotism. Both get out alive, though, as the opening kaleidoscopic montage at the beginning shows, they have to do things no sane person in a rational world would ever want to do. It’s purged both men: Tommy wants to reconcile with his wife Faith (Judy Jerome), and the cerebral palsied daughter Hope (Maddie M. Jones) he never met, both of whom he abandoned when Faith was pregnant. DD, now clean cut and proud, wants to keep his younger brother James (Daveed Ramsay) out of the local drug trade that his older brother, Darnell (Nakia Darnell), now runs.
The two men find no demilitarized zone; things do not end well. Because Tommy’s former gang boss paid for his daughter’s medical care (a case of unwanted but necessary charity for Faith and Hope), he must rejoin his assassin career. Because DD can’t keep James out of Darnell’s mess, he too revisits a life he prefers to leave behind. At home both men face a far tougher challenge than they endured in the Middle East because, on the home front, family members are possible (in the end, actual) victims of collateral damage.
Kerson and Blagrove understand the directorial imperative of getting-out-alive. They define their characters with decency, which makes their re-descent into the cesspool of their youth all the more tragic. Kerson is wiry and coiled, with the small, expressionless, and lethal eyes of a shark. He aces the once trigger-happy, now contrite character of Tommy. Though bulky and menacing, Blagrove is nonetheless empathetic, velvet smooth, and caring. He wants to sublimate what he’s seen, what he’s done, into his jazz saxophone. He does, but only once, in a memorable scene reminiscent of “The Godfather” when Michael attends his daughter’s christening while his men systematically massacre the heads of the other crime families.
The film’s women, Jerome, Jones and, as DD’s hardscrabble, seen-too-much mother Mamma, Diane M. Johnson (wait until you see what she does at the end) serve, variously, as beacons, muses, enablers, co-conspirators and, ultimately, surviving victims who, at the end, as at the end of any war, are the only ones left to grieve, mourn, and shake their fists at the senselessness of it all.