Road trip for Vets
Richard Linklater has had an…eclectic career to say the least. From edgy family comedies like School of Rock and Bad News Bears (2005) to solid dramas like Before Sunrise Trilogy to contemplative indie darlings like Boyhood and Waking Life to raunchy teenage comedies like Dazed and Confused and Everybody Wants Some!! (the latter essentially a remake of the former). But his greatest strength are memorable characters that Linklater falls in love with so he can just have you hang out with them for two hours or so. Sometimes this works as in the case of the Before Sunrise Trilogy, and sometimes he loses narrative focus to a substantial degree like Boyhood and Everybody Wants Some!! Nonetheless, he’s back with yet another dark comedy featuring a trio of powerhouse actors. But unlike his last directorial effort, I quite liked his latest…to a substantial degree. And all it took was giving me something I politely asked for that was lacking in Everybody Wants Some!!
Larry “Doc” Shepard (Steve Carell) is a Vietnam veteran who arrives unannounced to the homes of the men in his former unit. One of them is the laid-back drunk Sal Neahon (Brian Cranston) and the Evangleical pastor (but former aggressor) Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne). In the midst of their awkward reunion, Doc reveals that his son had joined the Marines like they did but was recently killed in Iraq, so he reveals that he brought his former unit back together to accompany him on his journey to bury his son. Despite some trepidation, Sal and Mueller agree to make the journey with Doc as his son was due to be buried in Arlington Cemetery. However, after the trio discover from one of Doc’s son’s former comrades (J. Quinton Johnson) that the young man did not die a hero’s death as reported to Doc by the government, but as a result of a tragic mistake; Doc resolves to bury his son instead at his hometown in New Hampshire. So you know what that means: road trip with three grumpy old men.
And while the film’s premise is really that simple, it leads to a thoroughly enjoyable emotional journey across the country as these three men re-connect and bond in ways that are absolutely enjoyable to see. What makes this work is the sharp combination of the script by Linklater and Darryl Ponicsan (the author of the novel this film is based) as well as the strong chemistry between Cranston, Carell, and Fishburne. The script has all the flourishes people expect out of a Linklater flick, but laser-focused on three individuals so you can get as much characterization out of them as possible. By the end of this two hour film, you are intimately familiar with the lives of Doc, Sal, and Mueller; you know their anxieties, their frustrations, their joys, their regrets, and their current lifestyle. Further, the journey changes the disposition of the three men in subtle but nonetheless effective ways that allow their mutual emotional arcs to feel earned. Plus, it helps you as an audience are actually enjoying these three vets hang out with each other.
Their interplay was basically everything that critics and friends told me that they got out of Everybody Wants Some!!, but I felt the film never reached those highs. Critics showered Linklater’s previous work with praise because it was “enjoyable” and was a great talk on masculinity. Well, if you checked out my review, I strongly disagreed due to the fact I didn’t much give a damn about any of the asshole jocks on display in that film, and none of them experienced anything close to an epiphany on their lives. Meanwhile, Last Flag Flying actually does have memorable characters (and bonus, I could tell dudes apart instantly thanks to their highly different outfits and personalities) AND features multiple scenes in which the trio discuss their life choices as they clash with their conflicting ideals and lifestyles. What’s more, Last Flag Flying has an important narrative device of Doc’s son that gives the film a strong sense of direction as to where its going. Additionally, it provides a sense of emotional stakes for each of the protagonists as Doc ponders what would be best for his son’s final resting place, Mueller reconciles his violent and hedonistic past with the God-fearing man he has become, and Sal deals with the guilt he and the others felt for the death of another Marine in their care back in Vietnam.
Such hefty ideas are communicated effectively thanks in large part to the performances of Carell, Cranston, and Fishburne. Now despite being front and center of the central conflict of the film, Carell’s character doesn’t speak much on account of his shyness. However, Carell effectively demonstrates his character’s nature with sly ticks and bent posturing to show a man that tries to be as humble as possible but is also in the midst of dealing with painful family tragedy. He also serves as a helpful mediator between Cranston’s and Fishburne’s characters, who are wildly different people and butt heads in increasingly amusing ways. Seriously, I haven’t had this much fun watching two guys mess with each other since The Nice Guys, and both actors carry themselves off extremely well.
Cranston, in particular, felt more alive here than I’ve seen him before. Using his wealth of experience in both comedy and drama serve him well in this film, as some of the movie’s biggest laughs and hardest-hitting moments belong to him. He sells you on his character’s boisterous nature and while his character sometimes pushes the envelope into making others (and yourself) feel uncomfortable, Cranston also demonstrates Sal knows when to pull back and diffuse tension in the room. Fishburne is also in top form here, as I can’t recall another performance he gave that was this much fun and so sympathetic to watch. It’s great seeing his initial guarded demeanor slowly fade in the face of Sal’s shenanigans; but he also shows his character has truly made a committed change in his life, never once giving into temptation of his previous life even when he divulges into the anger that his friends recognized him for.
All three men are wonderfully directed by Linklater, who once again demonstrates mastery over his thespians by knowing exactly where to deliver the big emotional payoffs and knowing when to relax and allow the characters some room to breathe. If nothing else, Linklater knows how to make you as an audience member feel at home with his characters and make you feel as a travel buddy along their journey. While the film does the delve into the comparisons between how US soldiers felt in both Vietnam and Iraq, Linklater’s less interested in making any political messaging and far more interested in how his characters view the events of the day. Consequently, the characters’ discussions feel considerably more real as they discuss their exasperation with balancing their love for the country and for their service as Marines with their mutual distrust of the U.S. government in how higher-ups mishandled the Vietnam and Iraq Wars.
While none of the big emotional beats brought me to the verge of tears, I was still absolutely invested in these characters’ journey from start to finish. My top ten is getting very crowded this year, and I’m not sure if this film may wind up on it…but it’s damn close. I absolutely recommend you check this film out as soon as possible, because this is a very strong…