Synopsis: A police officer who serves in the Marine Corps Reserves is faced with an ethical dilemma when it comes to helping his brother in prison.
Stars: Jai Courtney, Finn Wittrock, Nat Wolff, Beau Knapp, Leighton Meester, Arturo Castro
Director: Henry Alex Rubin
Running Length: 99 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: Coming from a large city, I’ve always found myself drawn to movies about small towns and the people that live there. I’m used to the noise and the constant motion, so much so that when I do find myself in a tiny township the peacefulness found there can almost make me a little too restless. As a child, I would tire easily anytime I traveled to my mom’s hometown in the southern part of our state because I had to exert so much energy to entertain myself. Now, I value that slower pace and understand better the appreciation for, I can’t believe I’m saying this, the land.
A slower pace is something I noticed right off the bat in Semper Fi, a drama opening in limited release this weekend and also available steaming/on demand. Setting his movie back in 2005 in a NY town bordering Canada, writer/director Henry Alex Rubin adopts a rhythm early on the film where conversation drives the movie forward, not necessarily action. Cutting his teeth working as a second-unit director with James Mangold before moving on to direct the acclaimed documentary Murderball and the vastly undervalued Disconnect, I was familiar with Rubin’s favored approach to character driven dramas.
Four life-long friends and members of the Marine reserves are enjoying a night of bowling at the start of the film and Rubin introduces them by, of all things, their bowling balls. Cal (Jai Courtney, The Water Diviner) is a police office in town and the unspoken leader of the group alongside ladies man Jaeger (Finn Wittrock, Judy), the hard-working and loyal Snowball (Arturo Castro, Snatched), and Milk (Beau Knapp, The Finest Hours), a family man walking the straight and narrow. Tagging along is Cal’s half-brother, Oyster (Nat Wolff, The Fault in Our Stars), a screw-up they all take turns playing big brother to if Cal isn’t available. There’s an instant rapport established between the men so that we believe they’ve known each other all their lives and we’ve just happened to drop in on an ordinary night for them.
The time we spend getting to know them is brief because the men are soon to receive their orders to serve in the war on the other side of the world. This means leaving their friends and family, some of them for the first time. The men are about to ship out to Iraq when Oyster gets into a drunken brawl. Fleeing the scene, he’s eventually picked up and turned in by Cal who is only trying to protect him from further harm. Winding up in prison for manslaughter based on shaky testimony, he’s serving his sentence as the men head overseas on an eight month deployment. During this time, Oyster suffers under the watch of vicious guards while the four friends experience their own hardship on the battlefield, coming home heroes but paying a price for their efforts.
The first 1/3 of the film where we are introduced to the guys is your standard bro-tastic passage where the characters are quickly defined and Rubin leaves it to his talented cast to fill in the gaps along the way. To their credit, all five men take up the challenge nicely with Castro and Knapp delivering the most interesting performances in probably the smallest roles. Courtney, Wittrock, and Wolff all have showier parts but it’s the quieter moments and decisions that are made in the final 1/3 of the film that made Castro and Knapp stand out for me. I do wish, though, that the one female character that’s given anything to do (Leighton Meester, The Judge) was written with a bit more depth. The middle section where the men return home wasn’t presented in the same PTSD tortured way I’ve grown accustomed to seeing and I was thankful for that. The men return to a town that hasn’t changed much, and that proves disappointing to them.
I wasn’t quite sure what kind of movie Semper Fi was going to be even at the 60 minute mark and once Rubin landed on a final destination the movie starts to pick up steam. Though a change in tone does come out of left field (from a different movie all together, if I’m being honest) it at least snapped my attention back into focus and held me there until a rather perfunctory ending. It’s almost as if Rubin didn’t want to fully leave the quiet of this small NY town so he just turned the camera off…I get it but the movie calls out for something a little more solid to round off some sketchy edges. There’s some hint of deeper family trauma with Cal and Oyster but it’s only touched on briefly and never fully resolved, it’s almost as if Cal’s actions later in the movie are a substitute for a large discussion he needs to have with his younger sibling.
There are so few dramas out there that show vulnerable side to men and while Semper Fi doesn’t mine the depths of the range of emotions it could have, it does provide some nice moments for its talented cast. I think it makes a mistake in dovetailing toward a more genre-specific film near the end that it didn’t need to be, adding some useless plot contrivances that cheapens some of what came before. It’s still a worthy endeavor and interesting watch, but there’s a part of me that wonders what another draft of the screenplay would have looked like with a different third act. Rubin is on to something here, but it doesn’t totally come together.