Sunday, April 18, 2010

secret lives: 3 films by neil jordan

Many of Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan's films take on characters with secret lives. He has a way of helping an audience sympathize with antiheroes. Because he has taken on so many different eras, topics and locations for his films, he's often forgotten as a great director. Perhaps too because he seems to have a gift more so with economy, actors and storytelling rather than possessing a unique visual style.

His highly original and haunting The Crying Game is Jordan at his best. A band within the IRA abducts a British soldier (a remarkable Forrest Whitaker) named Jody in Belfast. Things go awry when one of the IRA members, Fergus (Stephen Rea), botches the killing of Jody. Feeling a sort of kinship with Jody, Fergus abandons the IRA, moves to London under a new identity and begins a romantic affair with Jody's girlfriend Dil (Jaye Davidson). When two of the IRA members return with an assassination plot for Fergus to carry out, Fergus is forced to reveal his identity and past wrongdoings to Dil.

Despite the subject matter and brilliant (if a bit cynical) marketing by Miramax, the film became a success with American audiences. "The twist" is hardly the point of the picture. Instead, the film has its own oddball heart: a daring, sympathetic view of a terrorist and an unusual, ambivalent romance. The moody score and soundtrack by Anne Dudley, and the brilliant use of the title song (Boy George's soulful rendition is in the closing credits) add to the film's claustrophobic (many locations are repeated--construction site, Dil's bedroom, bar, beauty parlor) and noirish atmosphere (Jordan seems most inspired by Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place here). The visuals are straightforward though gorgeously shot as in the remote, woodsy locale in the long, and important first-half. The performances are quite good. A very internal and grounded Stephen Rea (who has oft-collaborated with Jordan) harnesses the film's wildness and the unforgettable Jaye Davidson, in his debut, gives graceful support as the vulnerable Dil. The always wonderful Miranda Richardson (immortalized in the femme fatale poster shot) appears as a villain. Looking back, it's amazing that the film was recognized with seven Academy Award nominations and a well-deserved win for Jordan's script. The low budget film scored a Best Picture nod against much blander competition (Unforgiven, Howards End, Scent of a Woman and A Few Good Men). Shelved for years and passed over by studios who didn't want to gamble on the subject matter, The Crying Game can be credited for the roots of Miramax's 1990s reign of independent cinema and still it remains one of the finest films of the decade. ****

The Brave One is a lesser feature for Jordan and star Jodie Foster. Foster plays radio deejay, Erica Bain, who delivers a whispery broadcast (think Delilah for the NPR set) of New York City inspirations. Unfortunately it's introduced, without much irony, over the opening credits. Out walking their dog, Erica and her fiance are brutally attacked in Central Park. Her fiance is killed by the attackers, leaving Erica severely depressed and emotionally paralyzed. When she stumbles into another violent incident, Erica is left to take matters in her own hands.

Like its banal source of inspiration, Death Wish, The Brave One sluggishly moves from one revenge killing to the next. Jordan's flair for examining social issues is buried in a shoddy script. An unnecessary detective hunt subplot is created with a barrage of quippy, CSI-esque banter. Terrance Howard, usually fine, does his best with this material. Foster is magnetic as always but her character is sketched thin. If the film is about the misperception of city life and it's difficulty to contain, Mary Steenburgen makes an interesting presence as Erica's icy boss who reluctantly pushes the revenge serial killings as fodder for ratings. Unfortunately she is underused. The connection between lead detective and Erica and also the coincidences of random violence seem heavily contrived. That the revenge killer is a woman isn't enough for much significance. It doesn't even touch the urban hell of Scorsese's Taxi Driver, in which Foster made such an indelible impression. What made Death Wish a social document was not the film itself but both the audience reaction to it and its placement in an era of violent backlash against the rising urban crime of the 1970s. Nowadays, anything with a marketable star and a gun is bound to make money. As Hollywood product, The Brave One doesn't get close enough to its characters in order to have something interesting to say. **

Also out for blood in a seedy underground are Anne Rice's vampires in Jordan's 1994 Interview with the Vampire. In early 90s San Francisco, 200 year old vampire Louis (a stoic and particularly poor Brad Pitt) recounts his life story to a reporter (Christian Slater). He tells of the origins of his transformation and his firey relationship with Lestat (Tom Cruise), his "maker." Louis lives off the blood of animals, Lestat, much more menacingly, off humans. In an attempt to keep their relationship alive, Lestat lures in a young Claudia (Kirsten Dunst, charismatic at such a age). Once Louis and Claudia think they have escaped Lestat, trouble emerges when they encounter a coven of vampires in the undergrounds of Paris.

Not a great film, but campy, glossy fun. Jordan adapts Rice's material as best as one could imagine one doing so. Cruise, who Rice complained wasn't right for the part but championed once she saw the picture, is at his hammy best in such a broad, villainous role. Perhaps more today than in 1994, the sensual and possessive Lestat is well-suited to Cruise's currently ambiguous and difficult persona. When Cruise isn't chewing scenery, the movie lags, particularly in the nonsensical final act. The goth, lavish sets and special effects are great backgrounds for such a ridiculous affair. And Jordan's use of "Sympathy for the Devil" (performed by Guns N'Roses) is particularly inspired. ***

Besides secretive characters, is there another link between Jordan's pictures with characters in ambivalent relationships? In these three films, and most obviously in his bleak adaptation of Graham Greene's The End of the Affair, passion is stunted by a character's reluctance and/or by societal issues. In The Crying Game, the interracial affair between Fergus and Dil dances between straight and gay. In Interview with the Vampire, Lestat is likely gay, seemingly infatuated with Louis, and headstrong on possessing him and preserving a lecherous relationship. In The Brave One, Foster's Erica seems close to starting an interracial affair with Howard's Detective. The more conventional love stories, between Louis and his departed wife, Erica and her fiance and Jody and Dil, are all thwarted early on in their stories by death. His characters are deeply wounded. As a focal point in his pictures, the frustration that brews from these stunted relationships causes a lot of dramatic tension in Jordan's work and one of the reasons why, hit or miss, he is such an interesting filmmaker.

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