by Andrew Mooney
The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) – Ken Loach (Dir.), Cillian Murphy, Liam Cunningham
There’s this country. Rolling green fields, rainbows sprouting from pots of gold, little men wearing green and sporting beards redder than my lobster back after a day at the beach. This is a land of faeries, of leprechauns, of Guinness, of Jameson Whiskey. A simpler land.
If you think I just described Ireland, congratulations, you’re a racist. Every year, around March 17th, as the inebriated begin their vomit-ridden trek from the toilet to the pub and back again, guzzling themselves on green beer and drinking enough Guinness to make even Dionysus embarrassed, I am harshly reminded that Ireland has a reputation. An incredibly inaccurate reputation. Having been in Dublin for about 6 hours, it’s about as obvious as a punch in the kidneys that Ireland has its issues. Taking the bus from the airport we drove past a building complex taken down by an bomb. A building. In rubble. In fact, growing up in England, I would hear countless BBC reports of IRA bombs left in trashcans around Manchester or London, thereby destroying both cities’ ability to keep streets free of detritus and options for quickly-improvised armor.
Being from a hybrid, mutant-beast of an Irish/British background, I’ve always been fascinated with my fair-skinned, strangely genetically-dominant, whiskey-brewing brethren. It’s a complicated country, its history about safe and blood-free as a BDSM weekend with Dario Argento and Eli Roth. Artistically, Ireland has produced such happy-go-lucky scamps as E.E. “CAPITALS” CUMMINGS, James “Words As Masturbation” Joyce, and Samuel “There is No God And Everything is a Pointless Danse Macabre Until We Are Motionless Clods Buried Six Feet Under” Beckett.
So, onto this lovely picture-movie. Where does it fall within the lexicon of brutality and fatalism that makes up the majority of Irish political drama? Well, the movie opens with a game of soccer…in that they have sticks and are yelling in a language that makes no sense. Maybe it’s another sport. Research isn’t my forte. It becomes quickly apparent that there is literally no way to discern gaelic from English-With-An-Irish-Accent-So-Heavy-You-Could-Whip-It-Into-Butter. But everything is happy as a pudding…until a bunch of British soldiers show up, voices set to ‘YELLING’, and stab a lad to death for not saying his name in English. Cheery stuff.
The Wind That Shakes the Barley is not a fun film. In fact it’s a brutal, rough-edged, crusts-left-on, growly chronicle of two brothers pulled into the Irish Republican Army in the 1920s. On the one hand, there’s the revolutionary Teddy O’Donovan (the deliciously named Padriac Delaney) and the initially-non-partisan Dr. Damien O’Donovan (Cillian “If Crispin Glover Was Beautiful” Murphy). While Teddy acts as a lightning rod for the cause, training his rag-tag Republican boys to fire rifles and murder the British/loyalists, Damien holds off to the side, healing and tended the wounded. But things change. They get worse. Fast.
Now, a movie portraying the IRA sympathetically isn’t going to be free of bias, let’s be honest. It’s a touchy/volatile/explosive subject. I’m going to hell. Anyway, I just wish this Palm d’Ore winner had given the asshole British soldiers a little more nuance than “YELL, FUCKING YELL, YOU TOSSERS, YELL!” It was as though the entire movie was a game of footie and, instead of beating the shit out of Liverpool supporters, they’re shooting people. And pulling off fingernails. And screaming. They scream a lot. It got to the point that Cillian Murphy is forced into a scene with the only seeming-mild-mannered gentleman in the entire British army. They begin chatting, a volume appropriate for high-tea and intellectual discussion. And then fucking yelling happens. I didn’t even see it coming! Just yelling. I get the stakes are high, but Ken, Kenny baby, have you ever heard of tonal variation?
So, people get shot. People get bludgeoned. A car blows up. A lady gets her hair cut off. It really is a barrage of brutality, unrelenting from scene to scene. I believe I counted about three smiles in the entire thing. Now, of course, the history of the IRA is no laughing matter but…Jesus…seriously. Can’t we have one scene where someone is petting a puppy and the puppy doesn’t get shot by British soldiers?
Dreariness aside, there were some fascinating quirks to this film. If you’ve ever listened to the pit-patter of the Irish brogue, even the most basic chit-chat is ticklish poetry. Seriously, if we redubbed every Vince Vaughn movie with Irish actors being douches, I wouldn’t think they were such passé pieces of shit. Or maybe I would. It’s a worthy experiment. What’s odd about this movie is that it doesn’t seem to adhere to a script. People just talk. There are all kinds of verbal blemishes, ‘um’s and ‘ah’s flooding the lines, stutters and malapropisms. Either this was a stylistic choice on the part of Mr. Loach, or in prime Irish fashion, they didn’t have enough money for second takes. The pinnacle example of this was when a kid brings a note to the O’Donovans…but he’s dropped it on the path. The kid looks into the camera, as though he’s expecting the director to yell “Go back, you little ass, and do it right!” He doesn’t. The actors carry on, filling the air with delightful Irish chatter before finding the note on the path. Right there: favorite moment in the movie.
So, let’s move onto the lads then. The acting on show is pretty phenomenal. Every scene is natural as a organic orgy. Liam “Poor Man’s Liam Neeson” Cunningham takes a break from not-yet-being Davos Seaworth in this current season of Game of Thrones to kick some British tail. Both brothers are mesmerizing. Loach, as a director, doesn’t really give a shit about moving the camera around a scene or highlighting things or editing. He just films and the actors do their thing. And with a man like Cillian “I’m Fought Zombies in London, I Can Kill You With My Eyes” Murphy as your centerpiece, you can’t go wrong. If I could put him in every movie, I would. The two seconds he appeared as not-Mark-Zuckerberg in the new Tron movie were the best-acted part of the entire bat-shit ordeal (other than Jeff Bridges being high as a fucking kite the entire movie…but that wasn’t acting. We all know this to be true). He’s the spine that holds this whole thing together, along with the fear that, as everyone else around him is masticated and mutilated, he will get punched in the face. That’s like smashing a Ming Vase. I know we all cheered when Jared Leto got his mug wrecked in Fight Club because, let’s be honest, dude is a cock-weasel. Have you heard 20 Seconds to Mars? Also, what kind of band name is that? What differentiates the last 20 seconds of a 2 year journey to the red planet? Slightly faster than the rest? Leto aside, Cillian Murphy is too pretty to harm. And creepy-as-fuck when he wants to be. I suppose that comes with the territory.
Time to get serious. What drew me into the film wasn’t the plot as a whole or any of the individual characters. This isn’t a biopic. And, with most historical-political dramas, I lose interest easily when I’m aware I’m watching fictional people doing mostly-fictional things. But this isn’t about events, nor is it about politics. Loach probably saw Michael Collins and thought, “Eh…let’s not do that. Let’s break some friggin’ skulls.” This is about two brothers and their self-destruction by way of a national revolution. Though Teddy is the political one at first and Damien the mild-mannered, by the close of the film, Damien’s become the vicious outsider, going so far as to murder fellow Irishmen. The beauty of the universe has delivered this into a line of films about hatred, birth and inevitable end. While The Serpent’s Egg was an intellectual examination of Nazi genesis, this is tactile, real, immediate. This is not a complicated narrative and it needn’t be. It’s beginning to end. You understand why they hate the British…you almost go as far as to excuse their violence. But, by the end, you see that there is no way for the moderates to exist in the same space as the radicals. As the old adage goes “brother against brother”. After all the killing and revolution, once the end is reached, the warriors are still fighting. Some people are content to change the flag and keep the same politicians. Some people are determined to burn it all to the ground.
It’s a beautiful country, its cragged fields and mossy forests the birthplace of so much of western imagination. This land bore such fancies as faeries, banshees, leprechauns and all manner of mystical whimsey. It’s also where a lot of people have died for what they believed in. It’s easy to forget, in between shots of Bailey’s dumped into frothy pits of Guinness (pleasantly named an Irish Car Bomb), inebriated chants of ‘Danny Boy’ in the streets of Wrigleyville and wearing the most hideous shades of green this side of a vomitorium. Movies like The Wind that Shakes the Barley, though about as enjoyable as strapping oneself to a chair and ripping out your own thumbnails, are essential reminders. Ireland, we love you, but you’ve got issues.