“PATRIOTS DAY” — 3½ stars — Mark Wahlberg, Michelle Monaghan, J.K. Simmons, John Goodman; R (violence, realistically graphic injury images, language throughout and some drug use); in general release
There's an empty feeling that sets in at the end of director Peter Berg's "Patriots Day." While the film offers a hopeful and determined close to its specific story — the Boston Marathon bombings of 2013, along with the manhunt that followed them — the threat of terrorism remains an open wound.
Berg has brought several powerful and moving true stories to the screen with previous films such as "Lone Survivor" and last year's "Deepwater Horizon," and he brings a similarly gritty, hand-held feel to "Patriots Day."
Initially, there is little to connect early scenes of characters like a young tech wizard named Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang) sending his parents pictures of his brand-new Mercedes SUV, or a husband (Christopher O’Shea) trying to coach his young wife (Rachel Brosnahan) on the proper execution of a Boston accent. Then the bombings happen, and everything starts to fall into place right as everything is falling apart.
Berg's primary accomplishment is his ability to create tension and suspense in a story that everyone already knows. His ability to put viewers in the middle of a story they only experienced at arm's length results in a jarring critique of the disjointed way Americans feel informed while still remaining ignorant.
Since the bombings happen early, the bulk of the film is focused on the hunt to bring brothers Tamerlan (Themo Melikidze) and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff) to justice. Special Agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon) oversees the FBI's effort to identify the perpetrators, relying on the seasoned experience of a Boston police officer named Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg, whose character is a fictional composite) to point him in the right direction.
Once the chase is on, the Tsarnaev brothers try to flee to New York, intending to continue the mayhem. Following a tragic encounter with a campus policeman named Sean Collier (Jake Picking), they carjack Dun Meng and his brand-new SUV before a dramatic showdown with police in the Boston suburb of Watertown.
John Goodman plays Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis, and Michael Beach plays Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick. Early scenes with Watertown Police Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese (J.K. Simmons) feel disconnected to the rest of the story until Tamerlan and Dzhokhar show up in Watertown, and Tamerlan's wife, Katherine (Melissa Benoist), lingers in the background until she's brought in for interrogation.
The broad character sweep and clinical approach to storytelling mutes Berg’s character development, and some viewers might leave having expected to see more from such familiar faces like Goodman. Even the Tsarnaevs' motives are largely unexplored, though in their case, the distance makes them feel more monstrous.
Wolff plays Dzhokhar as a detached, millennial nightmare, fixated on texting and charging his iPhone while cold and indifferent to the suffering he is causing. Tamerlan is more determined and the driving force behind the bombings, but his brother feels like the bigger monster.
"Patriots Day" is a violent film, but its depiction of the bombings almost feels restrained. Berg emotes the chaos and terror of the event through quick cuts and flashes of blood and screams, but literally hides the worst of the horrors from the camera. In many ways, the later encounter between the brothers and the Boston police is much more brutal, though still not graphic.
Berg presents "Patriots Day" as a triumph of the spirit of the city of Boston, and at the film's close viewers see and hear from the real-life characters involved in the bombings and aftermath. But while Berg tries to end on a hopeful note, a late-film conversation between Wahlberg's character and another officer speculates on the preventability of terrorism, and "Patriots Day" leaves the question open-ended. Berg's film makes it clear that tragedies like the Boston Marathon bombings ultimately bring out the best in people, but viewers are also left wondering if they have arrived in a world where such tragedies are to be considered a fact of life.
“Patriots Day” is rated R for violence, realistically graphic injury images, language throughout and some drug use; running time: 133 minutes.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who appeared weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" from 2013 to 2016. He also teaches English composition for Weber State University. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.