Monday, 27 February 2017

Film Review: Patriots Day is better than it has any right to be

Patriots Day is a jarring mix of "too soon" and "the film America needs right now". The Boston Marathon bombings that it focuses on took place in 2013, which seems like far too few years ago to already be dropping a film on it. Yet, what with the divided country America is right now, this story of a country pulling together after a disaster is undeniably inspiring. Patriots Day had no way of predicting the turmoil its home country would be in at the time of its release, but boy does it give this film a funny tone.

We all know the story by now. In 2013, two bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon, killing three people and starting a citywide manhunt for the bombers. Patriots Day focuses on the fictional Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg), a Sergeant for the Boston Police Department, as he and his superiors work the investigation over the days after the attack. Patriots Day makes use of real people - JK Simmons, John Goodman, Kevin Bacon and others are on hand to portray these real life figures - and so the film's decision to bind its story to someone fictitious is perplexing from the offset.

Luckily, Wahlberg delivers. While still capable of selling the script's more emotional moments, such as a brief sequence of Saunders breaking down in the arms of his wife or his final monologue that ends the film, he nonetheless carries Patriots Day with a confidence and reliability that it's tough to imagine anyone else selling. His assured performance is what ropes us into the film to begin with - after an opening montage seems to take forever to end, its his moments with his wife that finally pull us into the film and he handles everything from here on exceptionally.

This opening montage does worry you, though. The film leaps through characters like a kid in a toy shop, jumping from one to the other without so much of a connection. It feels consistently jarring and by introducing us to so many people all at once, the film has little time to flesh them out and expand on them. They're dropped in as a name check and then, in the worst example, returned to in the film's final moments for a cheap emotional jolt that falls entirely flat. Patriots Day's first problem is also its last - the film closes on an overly sentimental montage too and, despite its good intentions, the whole thing feels sloppily handled and borderline unnecessary.

But if the film's opening sequence and final moments are off putting, everything that comes between works hard to keep your interest. Director Peter Berg (in his third collaboration with Wahlberg) handles the initial bombing scene expertly. There's no tacked on build up or cliched character beats, people are just talking calmly and then it happens. There's a noticeable shift in the cinematography too, as the once steady and conventional camera movements collapse into a frenzy of shaky cam and CCTV footage. Each on their own are handled well, but the constant cutting between the relentlessly shaky handheld work and the unnervingly static nature of the CCTV angles creates a jarring juxtaposition. It makes a horrific moment feel all the more frantic.

By refusing to sex up the initial attack, Berg also creates an uneasy atmosphere for the remainder of the film. The bomb explosions come from nowhere, which leaves you on edge in every scene that follows. We can never relax and assume everything is safe and calm for a while. It leaves you watching a film that is unrelentingly tense, always finding new angles to create tension and successfully pinning it to people we hardly even know. Patriots Day is willing to leave its main cast behind for long stretches, too - an elongated sequence of the bombers holding a student hostage in his own car is excruciatingly tough to watch at times.

All of this is heightened further by the film's first rate pacing. It always feels like there's room to progress more, and the film never stagnates or stalls in one place for too long. It's a shame that the film initially gets off to such a dodgy beginning, and an even bigger shame that it succumbs to that same mistake again in its very final moments, but Patriots Day is still worth the ride for how well crafted its main elements are. Arrive ten minutes late and leave five minutes early, you'll probably get a better film out of it.

In A Sentence

While occasionally rough around the edges, Patriots Day is nonetheless a tense and well directed account of a horrific true story, all buoyed by Mark Wahlberg's excellent lead performance.

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