Sunday, July 19, 2009

"I Went Down"

The snowballing reputation of the Irish playwright Conor McPherson reached a peak with The Seafarer, which he directed at the National Theatre in London in 2006; last year, the Broadway production won the actor Jim Norton a Tony Award, to go with the Olivier Award he'd won the year earlier for his performance. McPherson himself has directed three feature films, the latest of which, The Eclipse, was recently picked up for distribution after playing at the Tribeca Film Festival. McPherson's first produced screenplay was for I Went Down, an Irish gangland buddy comedy that was a huge indie hit in Ireland in 1997 but achieved only measly distribution here. At that time, McPherson was an unknown quantity here, and for the most part, so were the movie's stars, Peter McDonald and Brendan Gleeson. It was the John Boorman film The General, released here the same year as I Went Down, that helped raise Gleeson's profile as everybody's favorite Irish gangster, a position he shored up last year when he co-starred with Colin Farrell in the playwright Martin McDonagh's movie writing-directing debut, In Bruges. That movie actually has a striking family resemblance to I Went Down, though I Went Down is both lighter in tone and the better, more well-sustaned movie; unlike McDonagh's, it doesn't fall off a cliff overreaching for significance.

McDonald and Gleeson play Git and Bunny, a couple of layabouts who are ordered by a small-town gangster with a face like a bank overdraft notice (Tony Doyle) to run an errand for him, sending them out on the road to bring back an old associate (Peter Caffrey) who he claims is holding some money for him. You know that Git is a good lad because he got into trouble by assaulting a goon who was threatening a friend who hooked up with Git's fiancee while Git was serving an eight-month prison sentence. (It turns out he took the rap for his father, who, it turned out, was terminally ill and didn't survive to see the sentencing date.) You can also see that his run of bad luck has left him with a fatalistic attitude that he only begins to tentatively shake off when he and Bunny collect the gangster's old pal and begin to pick up signs that all may not be as they've been told. ""Did you ever make love to a gangster's wife?" Caffrey asks his new road partners, by way of conversation. "Jesus, you can't really enjoy yourself. It's like making love with the angel of fucking death on your shoulder"

As Bunny, Gleeson is decked out in the trappings of a fortyish rockabilly cat, with sideburns you could use as a can opener. Bunny, who helps set the tone for the slick job of gangstering that he and and Git will be performing off by stopping for gas in a stolen car whose fuel tank he can't get into, looks like nothing but a 200-pound handicap for the first leg od the trip, but he snaps to as he and Git warm to each other and he begins to have a stake in whether or not he makes it to the next day in one piece. (It turns out that he, too, in his own bearish way, is nursing a broken heart. Before setting out on the road, he stop by the house so that he can look through the glass and call out to the wife he's separated from, who's trying to hide in a corridor; he gently points out that he can see her clearly. He also phones in from the road, asking the little girl who answers if he can talk to an adult. "No," she says cheerily, as she hangs up. The director, Paddy Breathnach, keeps things simple, letting the actors develop their own weird rapport and make the most of McPherson's dialogue. (In the only other film of his that I've seen, te 2001 Blow Dry, the director went a little nuts, trying to cram brightly spotlit eccentricity down the audience's gagging throat.) I Went Down may be a small, distant stepping stone in McPherson's and Gleeson's careers, but it's a beautifully cut stone, more gem than pebble.

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