As a filmmaker, Sean Penn has always had flint integrity, but the films he directs work so hard to channel the values of ’70s films – they are moody and fatalistic, frowning, and moving forward. at a dead rate. deliberation – that at the beginning, in the days of “The Indian Runner” (1991) and “The Crossing Guard” (1995), you could pretty much smell the sweat of its pessimistic virtue. I think that changed when Penn made “Into the Wild” (2007), a film as dark as any other film in his desolation series (it was about a young man withdrawing from the world – mind, body and soul), but it was made with an adventure and open-eyed skill that made it thrilling. After that, Penn made his one and only dud (“The Last Face,” which starred at Cannes in 2016), but now he’s back with “Flag Day,” his sixth feature as a director in 30 years. , and this is one of his best.
It’s imbued with what you might call the Penn Darkness Factor. “Flag Day” tells the story of the richly troubled, twisted, and touching relationship between a father, John Vogel, played by Penn as one of the most slanderous fathers in movie history, and his daughter, Jennifer, played by Penn. daughter, Dylan Penn, who gives a fantastic performance. At the start, there’s a scene that takes place in 1975, when Jennifer is 11 (she is played in this scene by Jadyn Rylee), and John drives them both somewhere on a deserted road at night. He places the girl on his lap in the driver’s seat, and is thought to playfully show her, for a few seconds, what it’s like to drive. But then he basically says: I’m going to sleep – you’re driving for the next hour. What he’s doing is so wrong it’s funny, but years ago I don’t think Penn would have staged a scene of this dysfunction so lightly.
John and his alcoholic wife, Patty (Katheryn Winnick), have a restless home that is hardly a home; for most of the film, they live separately, on separate islands of mess. “Flag Day” is based on Jennifer Vogel’s 2004 memoir “Flim-Flam Man: The True Story of My Father’s Counterfeit Life”, and it’s about what it’s like to grow up with a father who is a so devious and flaky liar that you never know which direction is up. John is a petty criminal and self-proclaimed “entrepreneur” who lives in his delusions of grandeur. (He was born on Flag Day and thinks the holidays are for him.) He still has a dozen projects going on, but none of them ever seem to come to fruition. He owes everyone money (including some scary bikers), and when he tries to do something as basic as chairing a family barbecue, the flame on the barbecue is too high, he turns the peppercorn steak marinade into a way to intimidate Jennifer’s little brother, and he’s obsessed with classical music, as if it would instill class in his kids.
Penn, sporting many variations on sordid facial hair, makes John a tinplate domestic narcissist who somehow believes, every moment, that he’s doing the right thing. When he talks about a scheme that he is about to take advantage of, the main person he is cheating on is himself. Yet John, for all his scams, has a broken, vibrant heat within him. He has a mad love for his children (the brother is played by Penn’s son, Hopper Jack Penn), even though he can’t bring himself to play it by getting together. Penn, as a filmmaker, shows a deep understanding of the kind of parent whose dramatic bad behavior can itself be a perverse beacon for their children. It’s not that the behavior is defensible; it is deplorable. Yet John pours so much of who he is in his disheveled carny-barker cheek that if you’re his kid it’s almost impossible not to have some kinship with that side of him. This is what it gives you to remember.
“Flag Day,” which takes place primarily in Minnesota, spans the period 1975-1992, and part of what’s compelling about it is that Penn has become an indelible craftsman who uses time jumps. to instill a story of devastation with light curiosity. Even in telling the story of this battered, flawed, barely united family, Penn creates honest notes of nostalgia, as in his use of Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” or in the primitive scene where Jennifer, by the side of the road , draws a sketch of Happy Highway Harry, one of those great America’s commercial roadside statues. This image represents Jennifer’s fleeting dream of having a serene, content, and protected existence.
However, this is not the life that fate gave him. In 1981, she was a 17-year-old high school student with dark gothic hair, snorting drugs and acting, and it was there that Dylan Penn’s performance began to herald his power. Until then, Jennifer has struck us as a sweet and rather thoughtful girl, but Penn colors her with jarring undertones of grief, contempt, and scalding fury. Even here, however, she never lets us lose sight of the bruised humanity within. Jennifer moved in with her mother, but after Patty’s creepy boyfriend (Norbert Leo Butz) sexually assaulted her (an event Patty turns a blind eye to), she has no choice but to return to live with his father.
For a while, “Flag Day” almost becomes a twisted parody of a Hollywood father-daughter boyfriend movie. John keeps coming up with plans and inventions (his latest: a jeans stretcher!), But then, out of devotion to his daughter, he swears to leave the bs behind and find a normal job. He puts on a suit and tie and walks around with an important-looking briefcase, handing out his resume. Penn, returning to the philosophy of movies like “Straight Time” and “The King of Comedy,” loves playing sore losers like this. It’s part of his empathy, but he also flaunts the flamboyant drama of it – it’s almost like a rite of exorcism for him, as if Penn were playing the slanderous men he fears, on some level he could have been. . We think: Maybe John is pulling himself together. But John cheats on us the same way he cheats on everyone else. And once Jennifer has her number, it’s over. So it seems, is it. A poorly executed armed robbery, complete with a Beatles wig, is not a scam you can get away from.
“Flag Day” is Jennifer’s story, and in the latter part of the film, she comes into her own, pulling herself together enough to study journalism. She ends up working for the alternative weekly in Minneapolis City Pages, and she starts off wonderfully – until one day she looks through the glass doors of the newspaper and there in the street is John standing. The way this shot is staged, it’s a brilliant moment in cinema. Penn now looks awfully skinny, with a modified prison haircut, but he also has a new silver glow. And what Dylan Penn’s face shows us is the underlying tangle of emotions that Jennifer feels: love, grief, but also sickening distress. The fact that his father presented himself as a stalker is in itself a red flag. She can now see through him. Yet this scoundrel father, whom she has systematically learned not to trust, is the only father she has. That’s the story “Flag Day” tells, and that’s why the film touches such a universal nerve. We’ve already had a glimpse of what’s to come to John. The heartbreaking pain is that he is a counterfeit father who is also the real deal.