Flag Day | Review
Americana Trauma: Penn Returns with Hysterical Melodrama
After the formidable misfire of his last directorial effort The Last Face (2016), Sean Penn unfortunately doesn’t fare much better with his labor-of-love follow-up Flag Day, ‘based on a true story’ from the memoir Film Flam Man by Jennifer Vogel. A film about an ‘unique’ familial dysfunction in America’s heartland, Vogel’s woe is horribly maligned in a script from Brit scribe Jez Butterworth and the clearly out of touch Penn, who casts daughter Dylan Penn in curiously underwhelming lead role, which he usurps most suspiciously whenever he’s also on screen.
Like an overworked Sam Shepard melodrama beneath the hubris of a John Huston lens, Penn apes all his favored darlings for this seedy beat caricature which can’t quite hit the high notes of the trauma porn it aims to be. Unforgivably campy and stupendously dull, it’s the product of an egomaniac who clearly admires the New American Cinema heyday of the 1970s but cheaply emulates it.
Opening in 1992, John Vogel (Sean Penn) is being pursued for counterfeiting millions of dollars as explained to his daughter Jennifer (Dylan Penn) by a law enforcement agent (Regina King). The narrative flashes back to 1975, the good old days she remembers with mother Patty (Katheryn Winnick) and younger brother Nick. From early on in her childhood, despite her admiration for her father, she learned he was a hustler and a huckster, often disappearing from their lives for years on end. As a teenager in the early 1980s, she’s forced to leave another dysfunctional environment to seek solace with John, who ends up ruining their tenuous stability by robbing a bank. Pulling herself together and achieving a degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota, John’s final stunt would mark her forever.
At times, Dylan Penn, who is assumedly poised as a breakout performer with this material, recalls the semblance of her mother, Robin Wright. But her role as Jennifer is never really fully defined, despite the overzealous (and often quite terribly pretentious) narration which blares throughout, consistently telling but never showing. By the time she becomes an investigative journalist, as portrayed here, Jennifer never rises beyond a shaky, transparent cipher, and has the amorphous presence of any number of established willowy melancholics, from Lana Del Rey to Evan Rachel Wood. It doesn’t help Penn is both too old for the role while also appearing to consistently upstage his daughter in a zany Arthur Miller archetype in Nicolas Cage mode.
Early on in a 1975 flashback he curses wife Katheryn Winnick over his ‘goddamn Chopin record,’ an early warning alarm of the capsized ship the film becomes. A later instance has the Dean of the University of Minnesota tossing around John’s mugshot at his daughter during an entrance interview. Though this is a period film and based on a ‘true story,’ the parameters in which it’s presented are poorly attenuated.
Malick seems to be a reference for Penn here, both Days of Heaven and Tree of Life come to mind (the latter in which he ‘appeared’ in), but he also curiously recycled himself in an Into the Wild homeless/flop house montage which could have easily been excised considering the dependence on visual cliches.
Most significantly is how the film boldly assumes Flag Day is a holiday with which the general public is wholly familiar with (it’s June 14th and celebrates, you know, the 1777 acceptance of the design of the American Flag), but it’s used here for some Oliver Stone-y significance in dialogue concerning how not to trust men born on Flag Day as well as some other hokum in the narration explaining John’s behavior.
As portrayed by Penn, the Vogel’s might as well be J. Lee Thompson offspring navigating 1940s Nebraska with all its poetic wheat and rusty roadside attractions. Horrendously schmaltzy, if aptly lensed by Danny Moder, Penn wastes a cadre of notables in the periphery, from Regina King, to Eddie Marsan, to Dale Dickey and Josh Brolin. As a piece of filmmaking, Flag Day is completely inept. As a source of camp entertainment (outside of a major film festival)—-priceless.
Reviewed on July 10th at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival – Main Competition. 107 Mins