Searching for a Center, by Aaron Pinkston
Dawn Patrol starts, without context, with a Marine held at gunpoint by a woman covered head-to-toe in Islamic dress. We don’t know where they are or what led them to this situation. As a ploy to stall his inevitable execution, John begins to tell his story – literally telling the woman that she has to hear his story before she kills him, as if it will reveal some amazing epiphany that could save his life. The start in the middle, flashback to the beginning trope has become a tired one, and Dawn Patrol’s use doesn’t even hold up to the subpar standard.
John’s journey starts in a much different place: a California beach town where John and his younger brother Ben are avid surfers and all-around cool dudes. The gap between where John ends up to where he begins is a strange divide – not only does one initially struggle to bridge this narrative gap, but the sun-soaked environment scored by cool pop rock takes any punch out of the would-be tense situation. After a scuffle between Ben and his ex-girlfriend’s new gang-connected beau, he ends up murdered. This creates a comically impatient reaction from Ben’s parents toward the police, a ham-fisted off the wagon subplot, and ultimately a path for vengeance for big brother John. Along the way, Dawn Patrol cuts back to its framing device, probably to remind us that it somehow eventually gets there.
The film has no chance to overcome its worn plot device because nearly every character is wholly unappealing. John is a minor exception, but he’s really just a charismatic blank slate for the audience to connect. Scott Eastwood looks and feels like a leading man, but don’t expect the grit or intensity his family name would suggest. John’s little brother, Ben, meant to be the tragic figure that sets the entire plot into motion, is a spoiled frat-bro who treats others with no respect. Ben’s on-again-off-again girlfriend Donna is a flighty, super-sexed woman without remorse or self-respect.
Having unlikeable characters isn’t a problem on its own, of course, but Dawn Patrol actually wants you to care about them. The most egregious example is a scene following Ben’s death when Donna seduces John – yes, days after her longtime boyfriend is murdered, an act she may have had a hand in – which is supposed to be cool and sexy. Once the revenge plot comes into focus, John never feels like the antihero associated with the genre, even as he goes on to do bad things. Worse yet, no character displays any true emotion despite a story full of tragedy, loss and revenge. It is felt in both the script and acting, with each looking to imitate the sound of your stock revenge thriller.
Without having any real emotion or any real stakes, there really isn’t much to hold onto in Dawn Patrol. The film tries a few twists that does little more than provide a little misdirection and clarify glaring plot holes. Really, though, as the plot develops and comes into focus, you begin to realize the numerous red herrings and unnecessary plot manipulation. In the end, if its characters were better defined or their struggles really mattered, the plot tricks could have been a healthy surprise. It only makes a frustrating film more frustrating.