From the moment the three Iraq veterans of Thank You for Your Service put the 1992 Eurodance earworm “What Is Love” on the jukebox of a bowling alley bar, a line is drawn. The young men go positively buck wild to the song, jumping around with wild abandon, carrying each other around the room in a mini–crowd surf, utterly unfazed by the bewilderment of the standard-issue barflies next to them. It takes a while for each of them to consciously reconcile with the fact that they have been permanently changed by their experience in combat; that they are not like everyone else anymore. One of them never does. But this deceptively jubilant moment makes it undeniably clear.
Adam Schumann (Miles Teller), Solo Aieti (Beulah Koale), and Will Waller (Joe Cole) are all returning to their Kansas home after a tour in Iraq that, it is inferred for much of the film, was particularly harrowing. They all grapple with picking their lives back up with varying degrees of obstacles to overcome: Adam feels distanced from his wife and young children, while Will literally is — his fiancée has left him and cleared out their house. But rather than chalk it up to a general post-traumatic miasma, as other films have done, Thank You for Your Service wastes no time getting clinical, as its characters seek out mental-health services and rehabilitation, and frequently run into stalls and red tape in doing so. As its name suggests, Thank You is a very service-y movie, but seeing as how so few films have tackled these issues explicitly, its heart is very much in the right place. (It even nods to early findings that MDMA can help alleviate the symptoms of PTSD, after Solo befriends a local drug dealer.)
The film is by first-time director Jason Hall, who also adapted the script from the book of the same name by David Finkel. Hall’s last film as a writer was Clint Eastwood’s runaway hit American Sniper, and Thank You for Your Service comes from a similar wheelhouse. But it’s far more focused on the emotional and mental implications of homecoming, and keeps scenes of combat always just out of the frame. As with David Gordon Green’s Stronger, another tale of fall-movie-season survival, the central trauma that Adam is recovering from isn’t shown to us in its entirety until Adam himself comes to terms with it.
Thank You for Your Service is a more critical film than most in this milieu, and it’s refreshingly honest about mental-health issues. Its victories are as mundane as getting through the line at Veteran’s Services, or boarding a bus for a treatment facility. There’s not much here to surprise or stir, and if it were a documentary it would likely be accused of not going far enough with its subject. But it doesn’t do too much to justify itself as a narrative film, either, stylistically or story-wise. That would seem to be partially the point — that there is no ending with PTSD, that it’s a process. But unlike the trauma endured by Adam, Solo, and Will, there’s not much that lingers on after it’s over.