‘Finding Steve McQueen’ Is a Sometimes-Great Escape

by Warren Cantrell on March 15, 2019

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Minor Rock Fist Up]

What makes a person: the world-facing presentation, or the accumulated history of experience it is meant to hide? Is it possible for a man or woman to literally fake it until they make it, or do humans have an engrained sense of identity that can’t be overcome? Finding Steve McQueen doesn’t answer these questions so much as just play around in the sandbox where they live, probing an interesting topic in a light, frothy way without ever approaching a real answer. And while the film misses on its tackle of these lofty notions, it does succeed in telling a unique story using entirely serviceable acting components.

Based on real people and events, Finding Steve McQueen opens in Deerwood, PA circa 1980, where Harry Barber (Travis Fimmel) is living a quiet small-town life with a big secret. As he explains to his girlfriend Molly (Rachel Taylor) one day, he’s actually a fugitive in hiding, and has been for roughly seven years. It’s a stunning revelation, and leads to a 1972 flashback, where Harry explains to Molly that he was a deadbeat thrill-seeker when he got tangled up in his uncle’s scheme to rob President Richard Nixon’s campaign slush fund. This uncle, Enzo (William Fichtner), harbors a powerful hatred for Nixon, and despite the fact that the targeted bank vault is on the other side of the country, Enzo and company take it on.

Harry relates how he was little more than a small-time car thief back in ’72, and except for a powerful affinity for Steve McQueen movies and muscles cars, there was little to distinguish him from any other east coast hoodlum. The kid had heart, though, and despite his impulsive, brash nature, Harry demonstrated a surprising ability to think critically and outside the box. These skills were put to good use during the robbery, too, where Enzo, Harry, and the rest of the small crew successfully executed a perfect multi-day robbery.

Indeed, the robbery was flawless, yet clumsy decisions made afterwards eventually led authorities to Enzo and the gang, minus one: Harry. The rest of the film recounts the real-life drama that followed, pausing at times for a different series of flashbacks that recount the history of Molly and Harry’s relationship, which began not long after the latter went on the run. Finding Steve McQueen is split in its focus, then, for it spends almost as much time recounting the emotional journey Harry goes on after the robbery as the heist itself. And while this is an inventive technique, unpacking the juicy bits about the caper in tandem with a full character exploration, the weight of the conceit proves too much for the movie at times.

To wit: the story about Harry’s run from justice and his relationship with Molly isn’t that interesting (and puts the lack of chemistry between Fimmel and Taylor on full display). Although this second, different flashback sequence is ostensibly an exploration of Harry’s maturation into a fully realized person born out of the Steve McQueen wannabe he’d been during the robbery, none of it really lands. He goes from reckless movie fanboy/thief to doting boyfriend in the blink of an eye, and while the change does denote character growth, it just isn’t earned.

Finding Steve McQueen toys with notions of duality, and how people reconcile who they want to be with what they really are. Harry is a good looking, charming thief with cinematic delusions of grandeur, yet he’s a mediocre criminal without a shred of the ruthlessness that is something of a prerequisite for crooks. Molly is the beautiful daughter of the local sheriff who makes terrible relationship choices despite her intelligence, and falls for the one man in her community that has no future. Enzo is a career criminal and master thief, yet he also enjoys the delicate work of repairing antique clocks as a hobby. The F.B.I. G-Man assigned to the vault robbery, Agent Lambert (Forest Whitaker), is a soft-spoken, liberal-minded intellectual with a marriage on the rocks and an emerging interest in French Horn playing. All of them battle with an idea of who they are versus what the world expects of them, and while the thematic connections don’t mesh seamlessly with the overall narrative, it is at least somewhat consistent throughout.

Had the film committed fully to either the robbery portion of the narrative (which is indeed fun, and well-staged), or the larger issues of personal duality, it might have really taken off. As it stands, it’s a little on the fence with itself, and feels like two okay halves of one disjointed movie. Still, the tone of the film remains light throughout, and the manageable 95-minute run-time speaks to the film’s ability to keep the various flashbacks and narrative components moving. The fact that it’s all based off of real events and people does spice things up in the second act, largely due to the introduction of Mark Felt (John Finn), which ties the robbery into the Watergate scandal via some clever writing.

Opening today in theaters, on demand, and digital, Finding Steve McQueen is an interesting (albeit uneven) trifle, pairing true crime hijinks with meaningful introspection and character work. Somewhat broad in its comedy, and hampered by a split narrative focus, director Mark Steven Johnson keeps things moving and is able to push this one across the finish line. Sure, it might not win the race, but like Steve McQueen in The Great Escape, there’s something to admire in the dogged attempt to prevail in spite of the odds.

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and The Playlist. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing.

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