Roger Ebert Home

Mending the Line

“There’s more great literature written about fly fishing than any other sport.”

This line comes early on in "Mending the Line," and it really is so true! Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It is probably the most famous example, but there are libraries more. Why this might be is an interesting question, and why fly fishing inspires such passionate advocates is another. "Mending the Line," sensitively directed by Joshua Caldwell and written by Stephen Camelio, tells the story of two men, one old (Brian Cox), and one young (Sinqua Walls), who are veterans of two different wars. They find healing for their combat traumas, physical and emotional, in fly fishing and in their unlikely friendship.

"Mending the Line" opens in Afghanistan, as a group of Marines, celebrating their final day of deployment, are sent out for one last patrol by their leader, Colter (Walls). Things go haywire. Many of the men under his command, including good friends, are killed, and Colter is severely injured. Back home, haunted by guilt and self-medicating with alcohol, he lands in a veteran rehab facility in Montana. It seems like a good facility, with treatments tailored to the specific person's issues. Dr. Burke (Patricia Heaton) recognizes Colter's impatience to be healed, immediately, so he can get deployed again, but tries to get him to manage his expectations. He doesn't take well to the group therapy, lashing out at the counselor, who never served. Colter is a mess.

Ike (Cox), on the other hand, is decades past his own war but still makes periodic visits to the facility, especially after he blacks out while fly fishing by himself. Ike is a crotchety isolated guy, a former Marine, whose sole respite from his mental trouble is when he's out on the river. Dr. Burke sets up Ike and Colter: Ike will teach Colter the ins and outs of fly fishing. They spend a lot of time at the local bait & tackle shop, run by Ike's old friend Harrison (Wes Studi). Ike and Harrison know each other very well, and their dynamic is prickly, humorous, and familiar. Colter's training has its bumps, but eventually, he's out in the river, trying it for himself. (There's a funny moment where Ike upbraids Colter for calling the fishing rod a "pole," echoing a sentiment in A River Runs Through It: "Always it was to be called a rod. If someone called it a pole, my father looked at him as a sergeant in the United States Marines would look at a recruit who had just called a rifle a gun.")

The third central character is Lucy (Perry Mattfeld), a librarian who volunteers at the rehab facility, reading to the veterans. Lucy is a troubled woman, anxious and distracted. Her back story isn't revealed until later, but she clearly is haunted by something. She's stuck, just like Ike and Colter. When Ike sends Colter to the library to get some books about fly fishing, Lucy gives him The Sun Also Rises (forgetting that one of the main characters has been rendered impotent from a war injury). There may be a little spark of romantic interest between Lucy and Colter, but it's on the slowest burns.

The fly-fishing sequences are beautiful, and the Montana scenery is stunning. Bill Brown's score is of the old-fashioned sweeping kind, and its use is heavy-handed, insisting on the scene's emotion as opposed to supporting it. Watching Colter standing in the river, a big smile on his face when he casts out his line correctly, carries its own weight without orchestral underlining. Each character gets a lengthy monologue, where they tell their story and sum up their emotions. The cranky old-coot humor between Studi and Cox is a welcome break, and there could have been more of it. Ike, Colter, and Lucy are complex people struggling with entrenched problems which can't be wished away. They do their best to survive and sometimes fail to rise above. This dynamic saves the film from sentimentality and some of its blunter tendencies towards self-conscious "inspiration." Life is hard. You never heal completely. You just find ways to cope.

Fly fishing as therapy for PTSD is a "thing" now; its popularity among veterans growing—and research supports the anecdotal. Fly fishing clubs for veterans have sprouted up everywhere in the country. It's very moving to see photos of all the real veterans fly fishing underneath the end credits. "Mending the Line" is the first film to explicitly address this new and innovative treatment, showing it as a potential therapy for those who suffer in silence. Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre's 2019 film "The Mustang" showed a prison program where convicts work with wild mustangs as therapy to manage the uncontrollable rage that has ruined their lives. "The Mustang" was a little bit harder-hitting than "Mending the Line," but, for the most part, "Mending the Line" conveys its message well. It could point people who are hurting in a new and surprising direction, maybe even leading to a way out.

Now playing in theaters. 

Sheila O'Malley

Sheila O'Malley received a BFA in Theatre from the University of Rhode Island and a Master's in Acting from the Actors Studio MFA Program. Read her answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

Now playing

Boy Kills World
Back to Black
Unsung Hero
Unfrosted
MoviePass, MovieCrash

Film Credits

Mending the Line movie poster

Mending the Line (2023)

Rated R for language and some violent images.

Cast

Brian Cox as Ike Fletcher

Sinqua Walls as Colter

Perry Mattfeld as Lucy

Patricia Heaton as Dr. Burke

Wes Studi as Harrison

Irene Bedard as Mrs. Redcloud

Julian Works as Ram

Chris Galust as Kovacs

Director

Writer

Cinematographer

Editor

Composer

Latest blog posts

Comments

comments powered by Disqus