Brian Helgeland, the brilliant screenwriter behind L.A. Confidential and Mystic River, returns to the suburban crime drama genre with this year’s Finestkind. Having just had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, the film stars Ben Foster and Toby Wallace as brothers Tom and Charlie as their lives get ensnared into a web of crime and deceit while trying to do the right thing. While the film has the shades of cinematic entertainment that characterizes Helgeland’s other work and the cast—which includes Tommy Lee Jones as Tom’s father—is superb, the script is otherwise predictable and corny enough to represent an overall step backward for the Oscar-winning director.
When the film opens, Tom and Charlie are half brothers from the opposite side of the tracks. The supposed here is that Charlie, the younger brother, is from the right side of them and longs to join the wrong. Tom is from a fisherman community, following begrudgingly in his father’s footsteps of hunting for scallops, which are essentially worth their weight in gold for this sleepy, Northern New England community.
The mood is typically grey and cold, as Crille Forsberg’s exceedingly grey cinematography reminds you. Charlie, from elitist Boston and living in privilege, finds excitement in “working hard”—which is really a proxy for “working with your hands.” Never mind that his rich dad is a lawyer, that sort of work comes easy.
In any event, Charlie reunites with Tom and the two are almost in a fishing accident that would have cost them both their lives. Distraught, their mother Donna, exclaims, in one of the early signs of the script’s clunkiness: “I couldn’t stand to lose you both at the same time.” Things do not get better for the setup when Tom invites Charlie to a local barbeque and the young lad means Nicky, played by Jenna Ortega. Nicky is written as what Gone Girl famously called the “cool girl.” Nicky drinks a bunch of BEER and drives cars FAST and can hang with the GUYS.
Hegeland’s script goes on to meander from chapter to chapter because the story is not about one particular plot in any traditional sense. The film is, instead, about the complex relationships between fathers and son. Or maybe it’s about the complex relationships amongst men. Or about what it is like to be a man and be a boy. Or about all of the above.
Did I mention that the title of the film refers to the name of the ship at the core of the action, the Finestkind? Of course that title itself eludes to the name given to those that serve in uniform—New York’s Finest. And also to the military. It is all about masculinity, somehow, but never overtly glorifies it. However, the end result of this mumble of themes and topics, of the all too familiar characters and calculated behavior, and the predictable twists and turns, is something less than Hollywood’s finest kind.
Tommy Lee Jones actually adds a note or two to his signature moody repertoire, one he has peddled since at least No Country for Old Men. Ben Foster is as excellent he usually is. As for Wallace and Ortega, the script really does not help those two embody characters that truly grab an audience.
Worst of all, though, is that the themes that supposedly suffuse Finestkind are never explored in any meaningful way. Maybe the point is that boys will be boys, but that is unconvincing for a story that is ultimately about redemption. Perhaps the clues are in some of the film’s more emotive moments, embedded in the notion that even the worst of fathers still love their children. One last theory is that the movie is a silent protest by the good old boys club against the Harvard elites of Boston, a quiet rebellion and return to salt of the earthiness, whatever that means. That too, fails badly, considering that it is none other than Ben Foster and a beacon of Hollywood royalty that play these characters.
Finestkind’s inability to coalesce around a single message, or deliver a power morale, is ultimately its undoing. The movie is entertaining as far as it goes, at least in part because the script is so chopped up that you will never have a chance to settle in. Below the line, the aforementioned drab cinematography is the most notable. And the two leads’ acting is as unimpeachable as it always is. But do not expect this film to transcend into the annals of crime dramas like others in Hegeland’s library have done before, the finer of his kind.
Finestkind Premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 8 and comes to theaters on September 15, 2023 via 20th Century Studios.