My dad disappeared on a camping trip to the Thousand Islands when I was a boy… my father and I had to go home without him. That story is too long to relate here (and it’s already been told in detail elsewhere on the interweb), but the point is I’m no stranger to father/son issues. So much so that one of the very few images in a movie guaranteed to squeeze some water from my eyes is any scene involving a crying father. (That and penis violence… although I should clarify the two are not connected in any way.) So to get back on point here, I identify with films featuring fathers and sons unable or unwilling to communicate, and one of this year’s better films to attempt that theme is Bomber. It’s one half of a great movie and only becomes less than that when the father/son dynamic slips from focus.
Ross (Shane Taylor) wakes up early one day to see his parents off on their road trip through Europe. Alistair (Benjamin Whitrow) and Valerie (Eileen Nicholas) are heading to Germany for some unknown reason, but after much careful planning and organization the trip risks cancellation when he accidentally drives the car straight into the garage wall. Ross agrees to chauffeur his parents as he sees no other option, but in doing so he incurs the wrath of his girlfriend Leslie (Sara Kessel). Father and son have disagreements both spoken and unspoken that mar the drive, and frantic calls from Leslie, Valerie’s repeated desire to veer from the itinerary, and Alistair’s requirement that they stay on back roads instead of highways all help to increase the trio’s tension and judgments. As tightly wound as the van’s riders are the film manages to keep things moving briskly with wonderful and unexpected bits of humor. Alistair’s motivation for the trip finally becomes clear when they reach the small town in Germany (he holds a black & white photograph of the town taken sixty years ago from a bomber plane high above), but that clarity starts to extend to the family as well resulting in revelations to each other and to themselves.
The film’s narrative strength rests mainly with the story between Alistair and Ross, and they invigorate the road trip (and the first half of the film) giving it much of its life, value, and laughs. The father lacks the will or capability to show warmth and love, and the son is a modern day male taught via therapy and daytime TV to be open and emotional. They clash together beautifully, but around the time they reach the German town that focus shifts to Alistair’s quest and his equally wanting relationship with Valerie. The trip’s purpose is an interesting one and results in a humorous and heartfelt scene in a furniture store, but nothing truly dramatic comes of it. And while the plot’s redirection towards Alistair and Valerie isn’t entirely without foreshadowing, it still comes at the expense of the father/son storyline. Ross’ role changes from believable and invested son to blind mediator and he (and those of us in his shoes) are left empty handed.
Director/writer Paul Cotter spoke after the screening and was asked about one of the film’s final lines. It’s three simple but jarring words spoken from one character to another, and it hits like a punch to the gut. Cotter explained (and defended) those three emotionally wrought words valiantly, but unsuccessfully (to this viewer at least, others in attendance seemed convinced). It’s especially harsh and unexpected after the glorious speech given by another character just moments before. I can see Cotter’s defense making sense on paper, but with living, breathing characters up on the screen the moment becomes bigger than his intention. It ends the film on a rather strange and unfinished note.
Despite this unfortunate and unresolved bit of dialogue, Bomber is still a fine film. Three fantastic performances anchor it with the standout being Whitrow and his properly British stiff upper lip. Cotter has crafted a family that many of us can relate to for better or worse in a situation that many of us would dread… a long distance car ride with your parents in the back seat. You’ll laugh and possibly cry with them, and while you may feel a bit frustrated with their behavior – in the end you’ll also miss them when they’re gone. Cotter’s writing and the three fine performances will ensure that they stay with you well after the credits roll, and that is no easy accomplishment.