We’ve got dadcore porn here. If you’re a father and you’ve ever wondered if you led your son astray, you could live vicariously through Ray Eldridge (Tommy Lee Jones) and Dennis Sykes (Tim Daly) and know you can always come through at the eleventh hour. Because even though the motto at the heart of Brian Helgeland’s Finestkind is that the time between birth and death is what truly matters, the film reminds us you can actually right all your wrongs from that in-between with a final expression of love. Apology, hug, pile of cash, bullet, or all the above.
It’s funny that Helgeland joked before the screening that this should have been his first film since he knew its world best (he was a commercial fisherman before stumbling upon a book that taught him film schools existed) because it’s all over the place in tone, themes, and cringeworthy melodrama. The things that often plague a new writer-director before they find their voice and hone their craft: kitchen-sink type stuff wherein the entire film shifts on a dime and pretends nothing is amiss. Things get so wild that I assumed they were about to get even wilder with a jailbreak before the epilogue turned schmaltzy instead.
Saying Toby Wallace’s Charlie is the lead doesn’t even seem correct––not after where Helgeland ultimately takes us. He starts as the lead, at least. A de facto filmmaker stand-in English major who decides he wants to reconnect with his much older, estranged brother Tom (Ben Foster) to grow some callouses on the open sea before heading off to law school. Call it rebellion against his father (Dennis), a challenge, or the result of a smart kid acting dumb. Whatever. He craves the adrenaline rush of hauling in scallops and the camaraderie of homegrown knuckleheads willing to bust his balls in ways his prep school classmates can’t. Charlie wants a real “Boston” life.
And it’s a lot of fun. I really enjoyed the first half of Finestkind as Tom takes him under his wing. There’s a near-death experience and a run-in with the law. There’s some light hazing for comedy and some screaming matches for added emotional heft, Tom always wanting to pull away when they get too close (just like his father Ray did with him). Charlie is “becoming a man,” so to speak. Getting his hands dirty with Costa (Ismael Cruz Cordova), Skeemo (Aaron Stanford), and Nunes (Scotty Tovar) while getting high on the excitement of breaking the rules and flipping the bird at authority––things respected attorneys can’t.
That’s when the wheels fall off. A blossoming romance between Charlie and a part-time drug dealer, full-time “this is where I came from, not where I’m going” townie named Mabel (Jenna Ortega) never feels authentic, but at least it provides a change of pace from the boys’ club antics. It’s in the second half that we realize why it felt off: her proximity to the drug world and Pete Weeks (Clayne Crawford) was her real reason for inclusion. As the boys get deeper into hot water, they need a quick influx of money and decide heroin-smuggling fits the bill. It goes about as well as you can expect, turning a brothers-united tale into a ham-fisted thriller with ever-escalating stakes.
Like I tell my boss that nothing is a rush if everything is a rush, though, nothing is suspenseful if everything is built to be suspenseful. You can only escalate things so far before you grow numb to the consequences; they’re either proven non-existent or unrealistic every single time. There needs to be a release, a justification or comparison point to make us feel the danger. Helgeland goes so far off the rails that we can’t help laughing at every crazier turn. Suddenly a moment that should surprise us with its brutal gesture of love becomes the most obvious cop-out of the whole exercise.
That’s why I really thought we were going further with a jailbreak, just going for broke. That’s the energy Helgeland builds, and it would have made the journey better. Instead we’re left with some effective pieces (performances are great when the score isn’t getting in the way) that add up to a finished product simultaneously undercooked and overstuffed. Unless, of course, you’re a dad who needs to see his flawed self being portrayed on-screen as not-all-bad. Because then it makes sense as a first and final lesson for forgiveness. As if disappointing dads let their kids down as part of a long game so that grandest of gestures means more.
Throw Tom in as a father-figure of a big brother and I really hope Paramount+ holds releasing the film until June 14, 2024. There’s no better Father’s Day gift than streaming an example of their stunted emotions and stubborn failures via a thriller-adjacent plot that ultimately lets them off the hook to rousing fanfare.
Finestkind premiered at the 2023 Toronto Film Festival.