I Went Down

Charles Taylor reviews Paddy Breathnach's good-spirited black comedy 'I Went Down'.

Published June 18, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

As sunny and good-spirited as a black comedy set under overcast Irish skies can be, "I Went Down" is about as entertaining as anything playing right now. Part of the pleasure of this surprise charmer is that it's perfectly scaled. The director, Paddy Breathnach (pronounced Bran-nach), and the screenwriter, Conor McPherson, don't pretend to be making a big movie, or even an important one. The meat of their story is the relationship between young Git (Peter McDonald) and the older Bunny (Brendan Gleeson), two ex-cons who undertake a shady errand to get themselves out of debt to Tom French (Tony Doyle), a small-time but ruthless gangster. Breathnach and McPherson don't stray from this pair. They've used the framework of road comedies and crime pictures for a story that's driven by character rather than genre conventions.

Too many new filmmakers have seized on film noir as a showcase for flashy brutality and cheap irony. Breathnach very pointedly cuts away from impending mayhem to its aftermath. When he reaches the denouement, dealing with ancient betrayals and double-crossings, he shoots it as a stylized flashback, a compressed daydream of a gangster movie. "I Went Down" is broken up into sections, each preceded by titles that tell us what's coming up ("A shoot out and a chase with more shooting") the way chapter headings at the beginnings of 19th century novels do. And while McPherson's screenplay contains some real pips (French on one of his thugs, who's been maimed in a fight: "He'll be lucky if some Arab lets him finger his dog's arse for a fiver"), he never violates the authenticity of his characters' voices for the sake of showing off. "I Went Down" doesn't feel like anything from the Tarantino or Mamet schools. It has more in common with the warm and hard-nosed Irish humor you find at certain moments in Roddy Doyle's writing, or in the now forgotten Irish film "Eat the Peach." Git and Bunny greet every snarl and setback in their plan with a what're-ya-gonna-do shrug. They take some comfort in their complaining because bad luck is mother's milk to them. They're not defeated, though. You root for them because they haven't lost the taste for something better in their lives.

When the movie opens, Git has just been released from jail after doing eight months. During that time, his girl Sabrina (Antoine Byrne) has started dating his best friend Anto (David Wilmot). On Git's first night of freedom he heads to the pub where Anto works and finds his buddy in the back room, about to have his fingers hammered by a pair of French's goons. He saves Anto by pulverizing the thugs, and enrages French in the process. This tinpot Mr. Big tells Git that Anto will be a hostage until Git goes to Cork and locates the old partner who owes French 25,000 pounds. Bunny, who's older and knows the ropes, is sent to accompany the novice Git.

You can guess that things won't go right, maybe even that Git and Bunny are so mismatched that they're bound to end up friends. Very early on, though, you realize there's no point trying to guess what's coming next, what unexpected angles and depths Bunny and Git will reveal, or even what tone a given scene will take. Breathnach makes sure that the characters, the plot, even the rural back roads and small towns that make up the setting, never yield up all their secrets on the first encounter. (The cinematography, mostly in moody, muted daylight tones, is by Cian de Buitliar.) Even the vaguely gloomy title, which makes the movie sound far less inviting than it is, turns out to have multiple meanings.

Breathnach's relaxed, anecdotal approach doesn't keep you on edge, but over and over again it catches you off-guard. A sequence where Bunny instructs Git how to use a gun is so detailed and matter-of-fact that it makes you realize how seldom movies give you nuts-and-bolts information about things. When Bunny and Git eventually locate French's old partner, Frank Grogan (Peter Caffrey), and have to kidnap him at gunpoint, he turns out to be a nonstop talker who treats his capture as a day trip with the lads. (I'll take the way he asks Bunny and Git, "Did you ever make love to a gangster's wife? Jaysus, you can't really enjoy yourself ... it's like making love with the angel of fucking death on your shoulder" over the John Travolta-Uma Thurman sequence from "Pulp Fiction" any day.) Even when Git picks up a young woman (Rachel Brady) at a hotel where he and Bunny are staying, Breathnach uses their love scene not to get a little sex into the movie (well, not just) but for Git to finally open up about what he's kept bottled up inside his quiet exterior. And Breathnach drinks in Brady's lovely face with its oval shape and disarmingly level gaze. (She's even more of a knockout when you realize she's no pushover.) Brady and McDonald match up so well that I was sorry she was only around for a few scenes.

If I had to pick one thing that marks a good filmmaker, I'd say it's the ability to respond to the faces of the people in front of your camera. That's also a sign that a filmmaker trusts the actors to convey the meanings of the movie. Breathnach stakes "I Went Down" on the faces of McDonald and Gleeson. McDonald, who wears an expression of perpetual uncertainty on his long, handsome mug, has the tougher of the movie's two leads. He has to keep our interest in a kid who pretty much keeps to himself. He does it by projecting an air of decency that wins you to Git, the sense of a good kid in an impossible situation, ready to do what's necessary but knowing, whatever he does, he'll have to live with himself. Unsure whether he should trust Bunny but determined to keep his wits about him, he's too conscientious to be the naive greenhorn Bunny mistakes him for. Git is immediately likable, but it's not until he opens up with that young woman that we really understand him. McDonald orchestrates the whole performance to lead up to that point, and then to lead from there to the scene shortly after Git is forced to act. The expression on McDonald's face when he does act tells you that this kid is as much of a mystery to himself as he has been to us.

It's a tribute to McDonald that Gleeson, as Bunny, doesn't walk off with the movie. (Gleeson will soon be seen in the lead of John Boorman's upcoming "The General," which won Boorman a best director prize at Cannes.) With his pork-chop sideburns and flash shoes, big, round Bunny is an aging greaser teddy bear. Bunny's got a reputation as a bad character, a man who once ended an argument with his grandfather by stuffing the old man in a rubbish bin. But he's also broken up over his separation from his wife, and a grudging protectiveness emerges in his treatment of Git. The whole conceit of the good bad man who's tough-on-the-outside, tender-on-the-inside risks sentimentality. Over the course of his performance, Gleeson gradually exudes the sort of big man's warmth that can make you feel like you're being swept up in his embrace, but he sidesteps mush by playing Bunny with the closest thing to dignity that will still suit the character. Like Git, Bunny has his moment of revelation, and Gleeson underplays it beautifully. He offers up his secret to Git over drinks in a moment of camaraderie that's no less trusting for being so casual.

The world of Irish hoods in "I Went Down" is full of tall tales and legends and rumors. Bunny and Git have become part of those tales at the end of the movie. You could complain that their last appearance is hammy, but the affection they've built up with the audience justifies it. And Breathnach never loses touch with the particulars of the Irish towns this pair make their way through. "I Went Down" has the slowly unfolding pleasure of an impromptu drive with no particular destination in mind. When it's over, though, you know you've been somewhere.


By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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