Heist society

With a mixture of humor and brutality, John Boorman's extraordinary film 'The General' paints a dark portrait of Irish outlaw Martin Cahill.

Published December 18, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

To the Dubliners who followed his exploits and cheered him on, Martin Cahill, the Irish career burglar known as "the General," was a Robin Hood figure who thumbed his nose at the police, the Catholic Church, Protestant paramilitaries and even the IRA, who gunned him down in 1994. He's a rebel, too, in John Boorman's extraordinary new film, "The General," but a fearsome one. Boorman has always been fascinated by myth and legend, and at one time, he might have celebrated Cahill simply as another of his rebellious nonconformists, a man unwaveringly loyal to a dying way of life, resisting the encroachments of the soulless modern world. Instead, he's come up with a portrait of Cahill that's much darker -- one that's restless, searching. Brilliantly portrayed by Brendan Gleeson, this Cahill (for whom Gleeson is a dead ringer) is a disruptive force sprung full-blown from the collective Irish id. A traditionalist with an utter contempt for authority, Cahill is a contradiction that adds up, an embodiment of his country's sentimental and black-humored hard-luck soul.

Gleeson is one of those rare actors who has an instinctive rapport with the audience from the moment he appears on-screen. With his teddy-bear build and his perpetual seen-it-all frown, Gleeson looks deceptively cuddly, the sort who's hiding a big man's heart inside his gruff big man's frame. When he creeps through a suburban home at night, stealing toys from a sleeping child to bestow on his own daughter, he's Santa Claus in reverse. Between the way Gleeson looks and the way Cahill mouths off to any authority figure in his path (like the public-housing official who asks him if he wouldn't be happier with "his own kind"), "The General" -- for a while -- lulls us into seeing him as a wily, slob antihero.

Part of that reaction is our naive eagerness to believe that thieves are striking a blow for the have-nots. Martin Cahill seems, at first glance, to fit the bill. Living with his wife, Frances (Maria Doyle Kennedy), and kids in a modest middle-class home, Cahill doesn't go in for show. He's not a drinker or a smoker, and his idea of indulging himself is to buy a state-of-the-art pigeon coop for his beloved birds. For him, the sheer joy of thieving lies in pulling off the jobs everyone assumes impossible, and then taking the piss out of the cops by daring them to catch him. It's hard not to get caught up in Cahill's brazenness when he strolls into a police station to establish an alibi for himself while his men are knocking off a bank down the block. Inspector Kenny (Jon Voight) knows exactly what Cahill is up to, and our first reaction to Voight's rising anger is to laugh, the way we laugh at the slow burn of Edgar Kennedy's cop in Laurel and Hardy movies. But Inspector Kenny isn't a clown, and Cahill is no Robin Hood.

Cahill emerges as one of the most deeply ambivalent figures to occupy the center of any recent movie. Boorman's refusal to either deny Cahill's tenderness and loyalty or shield us from his brutality may be confusing, even off-putting, for some viewers. In one scene, Cahill holds court in his headquarters, handing out food and supplies to women whose husbands are out of work ("My way of paying taxes," he calls it). Then, turning his attention to an associate he suspects of stealing from him, he nails the poor bastard's hands to a pool table. (And Cahill still thinks he did the right thing when the fellow turns out to be innocent. As he removes the nails he declares, "Nobody could take that much pain without talkin'.")

"The General" insists that each side of Cahill is equally true. He can be hilariously cheeky. On trial for robbing a betting parlor, Cahill walks into court and nonchalantly asks the judge if they can finish up early that day. "I have to draw me dole," he explains. But he's dangerous as well. During the trial, Cahill has a bomb planted in the car of a key prosecution witness, and we see Cahill threaten another witness as she sleeps in her bed at night. Boorman doesn't use those scenes to scold us for laughing at Cahill. On some level, even he's drawn to this scoundrel. Boorman (who's English by birth but has lived in Ireland for years) understands the source of Cahill's rebelliousness. Growing up on an "estate" (a housing project) in working-class Dublin, Cahill has felt a succession of boots on his throat -- those belonging to the British, the cops, the church. That's what has bred his anti-authoritarian bravado and his fierce loyalty to his working-class roots. Boorman acknowledges the reckless dignity of living your life by the rules you set. You sense that dignity in Cahill when he refuses to let his kids take a shiny coin proffered by a cop, or in the out-in-the-open ménage of Cahill, Frances and her sister Tina (Angeline Ball), who bears him a child. (One of the film's most tender moments is the sight of the three of them out for dinner, lovingly holding hands at the restaurant table.) But Boorman knows that an absolute refusal of any authority leads to chaos. Cahill is thrown for a loop when a working-class woman, one of his old neighbors, asks him, "What d'you stand for -- thievin' and killin' and scarin' people to death?" He has no possible answer.

Working-class Dublin doesn't provide Boorman with as grand a setting as he had in "Excalibur," "Hope and Glory" or "Beyond Rangoon," each of those films conceived as a grand quest. And "The General" doesn't allow Boorman to indulge the fanciful streak best epitomized by his lovely, unjustly ignored family comedy "Where the Heart Is." Shot by Seamus Deasy in sharp wide-screen black-and-white, which vividly renders the characters and the setting, "The General" may be the most intimate and matter-of-fact of Boorman's films. Movies like "Deliverance" and "Excalibur" revealed Boorman as a master of scope. "The General," which is one of his masterpieces, proves the depth at which he's working. This is the sort of close examination of character that can come only from a filmmaker who's absolutely sure of himself. It's not simply a challenge to make us invest ourselves in a character who is, in many ways, a bad man; it takes utter, unblinking confidence to fuse contradictory views of a film's central character into a cohesive whole, to insist that a character can be made sense of only as a contradiction.

Martin Cahill is in some ways a more complex version of Bunny, the good-natured hood Brendan Gleeson played earlier this year in Paddy Breathnach's wonderful "I Went Down." He's Bunny with a vicious streak and a tragic awareness of a familiar world passing away. That awareness is often indistinguishable from Cahill's naiveté, as when he steals a gold record and, discovering that it's merely a regular record spray-painted gold, regards it as a symbol of the world's shoddiness and dishonesty. Keeping his face covered up with his hands while in court or walking the streets in balaclavas to keep his identity hidden, Cahill borders on the absurd. And he can be petty to the point of self-satisfied cruelty. He has an unholy need to goad his opponents beyond their boundaries. At one point, Cahill prods Inspector Kenny -- a hard-headed, eminently fair man who can't help sensing what Martin might have been -- into beating him up and then gloats, "You've had to come down to my level." (It's a measure of Voight's superb, lived-in performance that he makes us understand Inspector Kenny's deep shame after using his fists on Cahill.)

Why don't we reject Cahill? For one thing, he's a performer with an innate flair for showmanship and impeccable timing. On a deeper level, there's undeniable feeling in the man, an outsized appetite for life, bone-deep love for his family and enough belief in a vision of what life should be to have his heart broken when he sees that vision falling apart. The weirdest, truest example of Cahill's largeness of spirit can be seen in the few seconds in which he faces the young IRA gunmen sent to kill him. A rueful smile crosses his face as he sees reflection of his own youthful cocky self. I can offer no greater praise for Gleeson's performance than to say that it's so alive, so fully realized, that he not only makes you mourn a bastard, he makes you feel as if part of the life force is snuffed out along with Martin Cahill.

Cahill's story is one of a sort of squandered greatness. In the last 11 years -- with "Hope and Glory" (1987), "Where the Heart Is" (1990), "Beyond Rangoon" (1995) and now "The General" -- the story of John Boorman's career is one of greatness realized. Though at times it's felt as if Boorman's greatness was being squandered: on the studios that dumped his movies, on the audiences who ignored them and on the critics who reviewed them so insipidly. But Boorman is one of the handful of working filmmakers who can legitimately be considered a giant of the medium. Having proved himself capable of visionary, go-for-broke filmmaking, he has gone on, in these last four films, to become a spellbinding storyteller of enormous warmth and humor, and a master of characterization. Most filmmakers exhaust their favorite themes long before they stop returning to them. As Boorman has learned to concentrate and focus his obsessions, his treatment of them has become more expansive, more penetrating than ever. Several times during "The General," Boorman uses the voice of Van Morrison to stand in for the spirit of Martin Cahill. Boorman has said that he heard Cahill's character in the rawness of Morrison's voice, with its suggestion of both tradition and wildness. He might have been referring to the quality that Morrison, quoting the great Irish tenor John McCormack, called "the yarrrrragh." That word suggests something -- it could be pain or exuberance -- called up from the guts; something both preverbal and suggestive of nuances of meaning beyond words; something primal and yet utterly distinctive; something that might be beautiful or ugly, but is always true. "The General" has the yarrrrragh in its soul.

By Charles Taylor

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

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