So much of the modern war film genre seems to focus exclusively on the pervasive image of a sullen white veteran struggling back at home, his story of guilt and regret completely untethered from the conflict that brought him to this wounded place. Benjamin Gilmour’s experimental film Jirga breaks that cycle, exploring the grief of the soldier within the context of the foreign land in which he fought.

Perhaps if produced by the prestige wing of the American studio system, Jirga’s simple premise would conjure images of a reductive and sentimental tale of healing. It follows an Austrailian soldier named Mike (Sam Smith) who returns to Afghanistan three years after killing an unarmed civilian during a raid. He intends to find the man’s family and give them a large sum of money as well as open himself up to the village’s justice system.

It’s easy to imagine this kind of movie with, say, Bradley Cooper, and him hugging a lot of brown-skinned actors you’ve seen before on “24,” and then everyone goes home happy, but Jirga isn’t quite so easy. This is a stripped-down film, owing to the production’s shoestring budget and decision to shoot on the fly in a dangerous region. But it benefits from featuring unknowns and locals, to the point that it might be mistaken for a documentary if it wasn’t still plagued by minor flourishes of dramatic artifice.

As Mike re-enters the country, Smith does an exemplary job portraying a man trying like hell to distance himself from his past while still taking responsibility and atoning for it. He presents himself as something of a tourist, but even in the casual scenes in shops and markets, he stands in strategic places, unable to leave his training behind, forever on alert. Because the script is so loose and the film so plotless, Smith has a lot of room to work with on his own, and it’s the kind of performance that should make him a name to watch out for, if only for the way his face perpetually broadcasts a man at war with himself and his own actions.

Unfortunately, with its brief runtime and documentary pacing, Jirga, as a finished product, is considerably less engrossing than the sprawling story that went into its production. This film is a true labor of love whose behind-the-scenes struggles make for a more appealing and enchanting narrative than the comparatively straight line its fictional counterpart traces. The meat of Mike’s journey would be better suited for a short film than a feature.

Perhaps being intermixed on screen with footage of what Gilmour and his tiny crew went through to bring that story to life would provide Jirga the opportunity to be a more consistently engaging film, one that distills a more prismatic view of the stories we tell about war and the unique ways we must find to tell them. As it stands, the film remains a captivating look at the nature of guilt and grief, of atonement and forgiveness. It’s an intimate portrait that just so happens to be dwarfed in the excitement department by the unintentional mythmaking of its production.

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