Bryan Cranston (“Isle of Dogs”) is an aging bar owner, alcoholic, Vietnam vet. He gets a visit from an old friend/soldier, Steve Carell (“Vice”), who he hasn’t seen since the war. They reminisce and drink and eventually seek out another old friend/soldier, Laurence Fishburne (“Ant-Man and the Wasp”), now a preacher. Cranston’s rough exterior, rude manners, and sour outlook, rub Fishburne’s preacher sensibilities raw so he really has to be convinced when Carell asks the two of them to drive to Arlington to bury his son, a Marine, killed in Iraq.
As the three pilgrims make their way to and escort Carell’s son to his final resting place, the three come to grips with their service to the country and the country they served.
There are filmmakers who we, as film lovers, watch with as much interest as the films themselves. Linklater is one of them (PT Anderson, Terrence Malick, Wes Anderson, Nicolas Winding Refn.) When their films are released, we know we want to see them, regardless of subject or review, simply because the director has a point of view we wish to see, on any given subject.
The worst of Linklater’s films are still interesting character studies. This is where this film shines. The plot is simple enough, but what changes over the course of the film is how the characters interact and come to grips with political realities, military service, and sacrifice all through the abrasive nature of their friendship.
Steve Carell is an especially interesting character in this film. He is more subdued than the other two, he is processing the loss of his son, and you can see his thoughts grinding and whirring behind his eyes, and his angel and devil friends present their views and try to help him find his way through the darkest days he could imagine. He is the main reason to see this film. I love serious Steve Carell.
Unfortunately, that is the extent of what I love about this movie. Don’t get me wrong, it is a solid film, but it didn’t wrap me up in all of it’s characters the way that some of Linklater’s other films did (The Before Trilogy, Boyhood.)
At times even the dialogue felt really forced and teachy. One of my dead horses is Show, don’t tell. And this movie tells a lot. Linklater is always a dialogue heavy director but here, with discussions of war, time in prison, drug use and whoring, there is something empty about the long scenes of talking in a diner or at a bus stop. It just doesn’t work for me.
Overall I thought the movie was ok. I actually really liked the focus of the story being on these three guys. It gave a unique perspective to the film. It isn’t about a young soldier, or a company wash out, or a conscientious objector. It’s about three old vets, still reeling from their time in the thick of it, 35 years on.
That 20/20 hindsight gives everything they say more weight, and ultimately helps it connect in a way less ephemerol than the imagined film about the three of them in their younger days in the corps, detailing the events they are looking back on, would have been.
So maybe show, don’t tell, isn’t a universal truth. This is one director who, though the dialogue is weak sometimes and a bit preachy at others, let’s his characters share their thoughts about their lives and learn from the perspectives of those others who are sharing their own. At times, you feel like you are sitting at the VFW Hall, listening to real vets, talk about their real experiences in all their glory or lack thereof. It is that peek in the window of their thoughts which makes this film worth the watching.