Anyone going into this film wanting some sort of Troma exploitation flick, or even a cross between Inglorious Bastards and The Six Million Dollar Man is going to be disappointed. Looking at the IMDb score (currently at 5.6) many clearly have been.
The title is and isn’t misleading: it IS about a man who (can there be spoilers if it’s in the title?) is tasked with carrying out both missions, but it’s about a lot more than that (or, if you’re expecting a rollicking dumb, fun action movie, a lot less)
Sam Elliot plays Calvin Barr, an old man who spends his nights down his local tavern thinking about things past and things that might have been. In the fragmented flashbacks throughout the film, we see him as a younger man (played by Aidan Turner) tasked with a mission, what may seem the ultimate mission, in World War II: to assassinate The Führer. It’s a task that is detailed economically – we’re given some, but by no means all, background onto why he has been given the job and in some ways the fulfilment of it is of lesser importance in the narrative: more important is the effect it has on him for the rest of his life: both mentally and practically on him and those around him.
Barr, when we meet him in the film’s opening, is tired. He’s old. He’s living his final years in, if not solitude, then in an element of seemingly self-imposed quiet. He has his drinks and he goes home to his dog. He doesn’t seek action – indeed, he avoids it: to the point in the movie’s opening when he is accosted by three young punks intent on robbing him and taking his car, he accepts it passively. Until he can’t.
The title does more than set up expectations: it potentially misleads to some degree: the two events of it are almost bookends of the story – although the non-linear nature of their exposition means they may be expected to play a more pivotal role in what we see. They’re also divisive in terms of how a viewer might react to the movie. Those looking for action may well be disappointed by the short screen time the events fill and, possibly feel the effects and hunt for the latter are lacklustre compared to a ‘straight’ horror/ monster hunt they might be expecting. The use of two such ‘action genre’ elements might well frustrate the more serious viewer wondering if this is going to be some sort of flight of fantasy element to a more sombre tale of an old man looking back at his own life of regret and the short future he has in front of him with apathy or acceptance: maybe even expecting more of a Big Fish style of unreliable narrator. To this end, it might be a movie that falls between two stools.
Personally? I loved it.
I’m a sucker for an old man tale and these days no-one really does it better than Sam Elliott: in some ways, this film is almost an alternative take on his 2017 film The Hero: that one may have been grounded in more of a ‘reality’ but there are parallels in theme and tone. (in terms of timing this was Elliot’s next role after The Hero, so maybe he was still in that zone.)
This is, as far as I can see, only the second film directed by Robert D. Krzykowski, the other being a 6 minute black and white short. I’m not sure how he got to make this film or assemble the cast, crew and budget he did: his IMDb page doesn’t suggest he’s a prolific writer, producer or anything else. And it is quite the cast that’s been put together: not just Elliott and Turner, but a well-judged if not megastar support cast (Larry Miller is good as Elliott’s little brother), the visual production featuring the legendary Douglas Trumbull and one of the most effective scores I’ve heard in years from Joe Kramer – truly majestic and sweeping. For a movie which plays between small, small, small…BIG! Kramer’s score is equally sympathetic and affecting for both. The cinematography too, is a big part in making this film work as well as it did for me: Alex Vendler is, judging by his 49 credits, from much more of a TV background, but the compositions in some of the shots – the ‘big’ shots, are truly breathtaking and made me wish I’d seen this on a big screen.
I don’t know what the budget for the film was – certainly a lot less than the impression you get from watching it – this was clearly a labour of love for everyone involved. The fact it was shot in twenty-five days is not just astonishing, it speaks a lot to exactly how much pre-production effort went into this: the director says he’s been working on it for 12 years and that is evident in many ways: to get something of this look and feel filmed in just over three weeks is nothing short of incredible.
There are some rough edges around it: of course there are- but nowhere near as many as you might expect from a young director making his first feature-length film on a small budget with such grandiose desires.
Sam Elliott is clearly having something of a resurgence in recent years: last year’s A Star is Born gave him his first Oscar nomination. This film says a lot about him: not just in his performance, but in his choice: taking on a movie like this with an inexperienced director, a small budget, a hell of a lot resting on his shoulders, and a pretty goofy title. There was clearly something he saw very early on that drew him to the project. A lot of people might not have, and a lot of people might not like the final result. But if you’re someone who likes a thoughtful film, that likes a slow burn and a bit more happening than what’s just one the surface, I seriously recommend checking this film out.
One last note:
Of course, it’s also possible to read the movie on a different level: that this is a big fish story: an old man living in a half-fantasy world reminiscing about what he didn’t do in his life, and attributing grandiose reasons to excuse his lack of action in the real world: I’ve seen the theory. I don’t buy into it myself: there’s too much of Elliot’s performance which suggest otherwise, but it’s a theory. If it makes you feel more comfortable than considering an assassination never recorded in history or a monster hunt, then go with it. Just go with it, and give it a try.