Bomber (2009) dir. Paul Cotter
Starring: Shane Taylor, Benjamin Whitrow, Eileen Nicholas
By Greg Klymkiw
A terse, tight-lipped old Brit and his seemingly vivacious wife coerce their touchy-feely layabout son into driving them to a village in Germany to fulfil Dad's decades-old obsession of finding a building dotted on a 60-year-old aerial photo and in this odyssey on the backroads of Europe, the family reaches new understandings about each other and Dad finds redemption in the unlikeliest of places.
Road trips in the movies are certainly not without merit. Tried and true, this is a genre wherein an old chestnut of a story premise will not trouble anyone due to familiarity with the narrative backbone if the ride itself proves rewarding.
Given the title Bomber, one has a fairly good idea what the "secret" revelation and need for redemption will be in this film written and directed by Paul Cotter, but again, that's less important than the journey itself. For such yarns to still have punch, there are several questions that need to be answered in the affirmative. Is the pilgrimage rife with drama and emotion of the highest order? Is it compelling? Is it plausible? Are the literal twists and turns in the road carefully and evocatively mirrored with twists and turns of the thematic and psychological kind? Are they layered, original and, most importantly, entertaining and thought provoking?
These then, are the challenges, not only of the filmmaker in general, but frankly, the reviewer who must assess the worth or lack thereof in this specific film. And the answer to each question above is, rather maddeningly - yes... and no.
Bomber is certainly a film worth seeing, though the whole is definitely not equal to the sum of its parts. Granted, with any film, one takes away individual moments, scenes, sequences and the like, holding on to them long after we've seen the picture, but I think what separates the good from the great in cinema (we can leave the mediocre and merely wretched behind in discussing this work) is when everything comes together in the actual process of watching the film - when what we see while we see it is as seamless as possible, so that questions about character, motivation and plot are answered in due course as the picture unspools. Questions should (almost) always come after. Analysis and thought about what we've seen is richer when the picture delivers a narrative that has as few speed bumps as possible to take us out of the drama, unless taking us out of the drama is an intentional tool to enhance the drama as the film progresses.
For example, Bomber has an uphill climb in gaining our avid interest. This is not a case of a film leisurely giving us necessary information in order to lull us into acceptance of the narrative and/or tone and pace, but rather the fact that the picture seems to start off on the sort of footing that strains credibility in the actions of the main character - who, as it turns out, is not necessarily the father figure, but the son.
At the outset, we are introduced to the son as he tries silently waking while his live-in girlfriend sleeps. Alas, she wakes up and he needs to explain to her that he's popping out to see his parents off on their trip to Europe. The girlfriend reminds him they have an important commitment and that he must not blow it "again". He emphatically assures her he won't, but just as forcefully insists how important it is he visits with his parents.
So far, so good.
He shows up at Mom and Dad's house, helps them pack their car, says his goodbyes and offers his well wishes. We're given an excellent series of clues and character traits about all three characters and their relationships with one another. The son hugs and kisses Mom. When he goes to give Dad a hug, it's rebuffed in favour of a handshake. It's true-to-life, intriguing and entertaining.
And then... Dad and Mom start the car, back out of the garage and... KAPUT! The car dies.
This is where you start to get a sinking feeling as the next series of shots are of the son transporting Mom and Dad to Germany in his van - accompanied, sadly, by some horrendous up-tempo folkie tune. We don't actually see the son's decision to screw things up with his girlfriend (presumably yet again) and drop everything to drive his parents which, in and of itself is not a big problem, but because considerable running time passes with ho-hum driving shots and scant few clues as to how the son agrees to let this happen, all one thinks while watching is, "Why the hell is he doing this?" and "Oh, give me a break, I'm not buying this." Not only is credibility being strained, but also we're not given enough clues for quite some time as to why the son would do this. All the while, we're taken out of the narrative and left with borderline cutesy-pie quirkiness.
Annoying as hell, really. Here we are at the beginning of the road trip and we're NOT buying it, but instead are forced to feed upon a few jaunty dollops of whimsy. Ugh!
Eventually, we come to understand the son's motivations, but frankly, this has taken far too long to occur and it becomes a real chore to stay with the movie. Once we eventually do, there are considerable pleasures to be had, but they come in fits and starts - the entire film being marred by either lapses in credibility or forced quirkiness.
All that said, when the film is clicking, it's funny, bittersweet and often very moving. The trio of performances from Shane Taylor, Benjamin Whitrow and Eileen Nicholas are uniformly fine. Whitrow, in particular offers up knockout work. The scene where he finally encounters what he's been looking for sees him deliver such a moving monologue that we're riveted and though his "audience" in the film is finally less than enthralled, we're moved and shattered to see this character redeem himself. When he discovers the real truth behind the thing he's been haunted by for over sixty years of his life, I defy anyone to control the opening of their tear duct floodgates.
Bomber is without question a flawed work, but in spite of this you'll experience any number of moments so profoundly moving that you'll be grateful to have experienced the parts, if not the whole.
"Bomber", a SXSW 2009 Selection, is now available on DVD from Film Movement.