'End of Sentence': Film Review | Edinburgh 2019

Courtesy of Berserk Films
A sentimental journey with some agreeably wild detours.

John Hawkes and Logan Lerman play a feuding father and son who settle unfinished family business in Ireland in this emotionally raw road movie.

A newly widowed father and his ex-con son share a fractious journey across Ireland in End of Sentence, a tragicomic road movie from Icelandic producer-turned-director Elfar Adalsteins. Serving as a fine showcase for the craggy, soulful, hangdog screen presence of veteran Oscar nominee John Hawkes (Winter's Bone), with solid support from former child actor Logan Lerman (star of the Percy Jackson fantasy films), this bittersweet Iceland-Ireland-U.S. co-production has some of the character-rich tone and novelistic texture of an Alexander Payne movie. World premiered in Edinburgh, it has ample potential for turning festival buzz into box office returns.

End of Sentence opens in an Alabama jail, where Frank Fogle (Hawkes) and his wife Anna (Andrea Irvine) are visiting their wayward son Sean (Lerman), who is serving time for car theft. Anna, who is dying of cancer, calmly informs Sean this will be her last visit. Following her funeral, father and son are faced with the challenge of patching up their long-broken relationship. But embittered hothead Sean is in no mood for building bridges. Heading to California on the promise of a job, he makes it brutally clear he never wants to see Frank again.

Tempers inevitably flare when Frank asks Sean to share one last act of closure, joining him on a trip to Ireland to fulfill Anna's dying wish of having her ashes scattered on a lake with special emotional significance for her. After initially refusing point-blank, Sean grudgingly concedes to the pilgrimage and the pair fly off to Dublin. The off-the-map road trip that follows is full of madcap twists and unexpected swerves, including shock revelations about Anna's romantic past and a chaotic entanglement with a glamorous Irish femme fatale, Jewel (Sarah Bolger).

End of Sentence is a familiar story at heart, but beautifully observed, sensitively played and smart enough to wrong-foot audience expectations whenever the plot gets too comfortable. While Michael Armbruster's screenplay presses some obvious tear-jerking buttons in places, it never stoops to cheap sentimentality. The unresolved issues at the root of the story, with hardened cynic Sean repeatedly goading Frank for being a docile loser, have the painfully authentic feel of real family feuds. Even during a handful of incongruous scenes when this low-key indie drama switches gear into frenetic farce, complete with police chases and double-crossing subplots, the film retains this pleasingly crunchy kernel of truth.

Predictably, Armbruster's picaresque plot eventually finds a way of thawing the frosty impasse between the two men, but the road to reconciliation is pleasingly bumpy and steep. Bolger's elusive character is a little too opaquely sketched, although she still gives a rounded performance, particularly during a standout musical interlude when she takes on Ewan McColl's classic folk ballad "Dirty Old Town." Adalsteins maintains an impressively steady hand for a first-time director, while he and cinematographer Karl Oskarsson shoot the lush Irish countryside with majestic aerial shots that manage to look ravishing without resorting to twinkle-eyed Emerald Isle cliché.

Production companies: Berserk Films, Samson Films
Cast: John Hawkes, Logan Lerman, Sarah Bolger, Olafur Darri Olafsson
Director: Elfar Adalsteins
Screenwriter: Michael Armbruster

Producers: Elfar Adalsteins, David Collins, Sigurjon Sighvatsson
Executive producers: Eva Maria Daniels, Olga Segura

Cinematographer: Karl Oskarsson
Production designer: Ray Ball
Costume designer: Lara Campbell
Music: Petur Benediktsson

Editor: Kristjan Lodmfjord
Casting: Louise Kiely, Laray Mayfield
Venue: Edinburgh International Film Festival

Sales: Rocket Science, London

96 minutes