Movie Review: End of Sentence (2019)

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After a prison guard informs him that murderers make the best inmates because they smile and do what they're told, soft-spoken Frank Fogle (John Hawkes) asks him if the same is true for thieves. Common thieves, the guard explains, are the worst kind of prisoners because they don't want to listen or do what they're told. It's a sentiment that seems to strike a chord with Frank, who you can see try to find a silver lining in the storm clouds passing through his eyes from the exchange after the guard tells him that a good job is the key to reintegration . . . just before he admits that for ex-cons, finding work is almost impossible.

Having taken his terminally ill wife to say goodbye to their twenty-eight-year-old son Sean (Logan Lerman), an inmate doing a bid for automobile theft, after his wife passes away, Frank returns to the Alabama correctional facility to pick him up when he's released. There to follow through on an offscreen promise he made to his wife on her deathbed to bring her ashes to northern Ireland to be sprinkled in a lake, when the stubborn Sean first sets eyes on his father, all Frank represents to him is just another guard telling him what to do. Barely willing to acknowledge his father, let alone get in a car with him, it's clear that Sean prefers the company of strangers to his old man. Accepting a ride from a police officer to a job interview that proves unsuccessful, Sean holds out as long as he can before he gives up on hitchhiking and steps inside his dad's car at last.

Needing to be in Oakland, California in five days to accept a position in an electronics warehouse that will be given away if he doesn't arrive, Sean strikes a deal with his father. He tells Frank that he'll go with him to Ireland, help sprinkle his beloved mother's ashes, and look at a piece of property that both men have just discovered she'd inherited (which Frank has promised to give to him), if his father vows to fly him out to his new life on the west coast on Frank's dime when they're finished.

A situation that pushes both men outside of their comfort zones, as not only are the two estranged but his father is terrified of flying, it doesn't take long before Sean looks for a buffer — any buffer — to make the trip a little more bearable, which he finds in the beautiful Jewel (Sarah Bolger), a mysterious Irish lass with a troubled past. After the two flirt and frolic, Sean helps her scheme her way into a ride from Frank as they make their way from Dublin to his mother's final destination up north, not realizing that his father has found a buffer of his own when he sets out to learn more about his late wife's life.

Using a classical journey motif to double as the path these two men need to take to learn more about one another (only to eventually uncover that they have much more in common than they'd realized), in his feature filmmaking debut, director Elfar Adalsteins begins subtly linking his characters together in their literal and figurative prisons of grief from the very start of End of Sentence.

Isolated in their respective frames, with Frank struggling to go through the motions of eating and sleep after his wife's death and Sean alone in his cell or answering a call from his father in a lonely Taxi Driverish prison hallway before he hangs up without a word, Adalsteins' approach is as beautifully understated as it is highly effective. Working with both his cinematographer Karl Oskarsson in terms of blocking as well as his trio of editors Guðlaugur Andri Eythórsson, Kristján Lodmfjord, and Valdís Óskarsdóttir to keep the men separated often in cuts and frames, when they're in the same shot together early on, Adalsteins' Sentence gives off the impression that it might actually be painful for the Fogles to look one another in the eye.

And even though we absolutely know where the film is headed in terms of their relationship — owing as much to a deft screenplay by Beautiful Boy writer Michael Armbruster as it does its talented leads — for a majority of its running time, the compelling Icelandic, Irish, and American co-production refuses to take any shortcuts. In fact, it only opts for a slightly contrived twist at the precise moment that the film needs it most when, after the years of resentment that Sean has been building up towards his father erupts in a volcanic but necessary confrontation, the film gives the two men a fresh reset as they're pushed to tackle a problem from the same temporarily united side. And it's a tremendous credit to the work done here by Hawkes and Lerman that it works better than it might've perhaps had Sean and Frank been embodied by two lesser actors. 

Though Lerman has the advantage of voicing his frustrations aloud, Hawkes (who first caught my attention in Winter's Bone) turns in a phenomenal performance as a quietly dignified, beaten down, but still polite man searching as much for the truth as he is the ability to feel anything other than the devastating loss. Revealing an important truth about Frank in a heartbreaking payoff to an earlier scene that Adalsteins opts to convey without words (which suddenly makes you look at everything he'd done in the film thus far in a new light), it soon becomes apparent just how nuanced Hawkes' portrayal of Frank has been all along.

A subtly potent and moving work that was shot in 2017 and released to VOD now in 2020, End of Sentence is one of those universally relatable films that addresses the emotional rift that can exist between not only father and son but any two people who grew up in the same house together. Unable to see past his own anger at the man he most likely views as his very first warden, it's only when the two leave the confines of their separate and isolated lives in the United States that Sean realizes that his father might understand his rage better than he does.

With his hunched shoulders and meek manner, while Sean itches to escape his present situation the quickest way he knows how (and whether or not his problems will follow), Frank accepts his fate. Resigned to the past and uncertain how to make sense of a solitary future, with a shy, compliant smile, John Hawkes keeps his head down and tries to survive like the rest of us . . . until eventually he's forced to look up.

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