The Icelandic drama “End of Sentence” is another movie entry which sets out to show that a good road trip can cure all woes, heal all wounds, mend all fences, and so on. Pretty scenery is a balm and the journey’s inevitable speed bumps are sure-fire ways to remedy almost any personal ailment. We’ve seen this before. Yet despite the air of familiarity, “End of Sentence” works because of smart filmmaking choices and two stand-out lead performances.
The movie comes from first-time director Elfar Adalsteins. It works from a screenplay by Michael Armbruster that centers around a father and son at a critical stage in their relationship. The film opens with Frank Fogle (John Hawkes) carrying his wife Anne (Andrea Irvine) to visit their son Sean (Logan Lerman) who’s in an Alabama state prison serving out his sentence for auto theft. Anne, suffering from late-stage cancer, uses the visit to tell her son a final goodbye while Frank, left off the visitors list, waits outside. The father/son tension is obvious from the start.
A short time later Anne passes away and her dying wish is for Frank and Sean to scatter her ashes near a lake in Northwestern Ireland. But she wants them to do it together. The problem is Sean detests his father (for reasons that come into focus a little later) and he’s quick to turn Frank down once he gets out of prison. Sean has a job waiting for him in California if he can get there in time, but getting there proves tough with no money and no ride. Frank offers to pay for his flight to the west coast if he will help carry out his mother’s last wish. Sean begrudgingly agrees and the two head overseas.
Adalsteins takes the two from Dublin to Belfast and even further north along winding country roads and through small towns. As they travel both characters open up more leading to the inevitable boiling point where secrets are revealed and true feelings are finally laid bare. While the outcome remains predictable, the characters make it worthwhile. Frank is meek, timid, and tightly-wound. He’s cut from the old-fashioned gentleman mold and tends to let people walk all over him. Sean is embittered and full of pent-up anger, harboring deep-seated resentment towards his father.
It makes for a combustible pairing but Adalsteins doesn’t let his story get away from him. “End of Sentence” could have easily spiraled into conventional family drama￼ territory. But it’s kept grounded by good direction that seems keenly aware of the genre trappings and works hard not to fall into them.￼ Even when Sarah Bolger’s Jewel pops up (a character ripe for the third-wheel treatment) the story maintains its humanity and uses her in a smart way. Bolger’s really good and she brings an energy to the movie it really needs.
It’s Hawkes who is the real standout, delivering yet another performance you can’t look away from. The 60-year-old screen veteran has a career filled with a wide variety of great roles. He’s been a terrifying Ozark mountain meth addict, a frustrated quadriplegic, even a charismatic cult leader.￼ Here he brings a graceful tenderness to a character weighted down by insecurity and grief. Lerman is a solid foil, simmering with acrimony and rage that he often conveys without a word of dialogue. It’s an impressive eye-catching turn.
“End of Sentence” doesn’t veer too far off the formulaic ‘road trip to reconciliation’ path. There’s also a semi-action scene on a ferry boat that feels weirdly out of place. Otherwise there is a lot to like about Elfar Adalsteins’ debut effort, a movie about two hurting souls, past family trauma, and the importance of communication. Along with Armbruster’s intelligent script and a well-tuned cast, Adalsteins never loses sight of the human element either in his characters or his storytelling. It’s a key ingredient the movie embraces to great effect.
VERDICT – 4 STARS