Just a few weeks after reaching his highest career heights of the last decade with a sublime supporting performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, Sean Penn returns to UK cinemas to give us an unfortunate reminder of his absolute worst instincts, not just as an actor, but as a director too. His last outing behind the camera was the risible The Last Face, and Flag Day (which somehow made into last year’s Cannes competition) is only a marginal improvement on that all-timer of a catastrophe. Shrill, derivative, and mostly just downright boring, it’s a bizarre act of nepotism that makes the entire Penn family look bad.
Penn directs and stars in this true story drama as John Vogel, an arsonist, bank robber, conman, counterfeiter, and (most importantly) unreliable father to Jennifer Vogel (played by Penn’s real-life daughter Dylan), upon whose memoir the film is based. We follow John and Jennifer’s rocky relationship, John dropping in and out of his family’s lives as and when he sees fit, always returning with some depressingly hokey get-rich-quick scheme. The nepotism is obvious but could have made for an interesting meta drama (Penn himself is hardly the ideal family man), but Penn Sr lets his daughter down with an empty, shouty role.
Penn Jr is simply not a good enough actor to elevate the astoundingly clunky script from Jez Butterworth, a fact made most clear by the horrible cod-Malickian voiceover. She spouts verbose platitudes against shots of children in wheatfields and long drives through rural Americana that show only the most surface-level understanding of what makes a Malick film so magical (an unforgiveable error from Penn Sr, who has starred for Malick twice). The scenes of Jennifer as a kid are stronger, Penn the director managing to find a decent balance of excitement and wariness as Jennifer observes her dad’s hustles and lies, but the dull reality of Jennifer’s adult life always interrupts – drug problems, suicidal ideation, and more all flattened out into uninvolving montages set to a clanger of a soundtrack.
Elsewhere, Katheryn Winnick has a thankless task as Jennifer’s appalling mother, while Regina King and Josh Brolin pop up for the most forgettable roles of each of their respective careers, barely sharing five minutes of screen-time between them. At least in part, they seem victims of what must have been a chaotic edit (Miles Teller was part of the shoot but his role has been excised completely), but their performances are still bored and lifeless as characters that make no impact on the story whatsoever.
It all comes to a head in a ludicrous finale that showcases the worst of the script, Dylan Penn’s performance, and Penn’s uneven direction, sometimes aping ‘70s styles, other times using techniques that feel ripped straight from a bad early noughts movie. From top to bottom, there is nothing at all to recommend Flag Day, Penn and Penn laying down the gauntlet in an early contender for 2022’s worst film.