Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 32 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 8; Language 6; Sex/Nudity 0.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
They sit in ambush in the villages; in hiding places they murder the innocent. Their eyes stealthily watch for the helpless; they lurk in secret like a lion in its covert; they lurk that they may seize the poor; they seize the poor and drag them off in their net.
It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.
1971 was not a good year for Northern Ireland, with the Catholic push for their civil rights in the Sixties turning into violent clashes between them and their Protestant neighbors who tried to block them by fair means and foul. Director Yann Demange teams with screenwriter Gregory Burke to show just how dangerous and vicious the Troubles were becoming during this pivotal year. The Catholic minority at first welcomed British troops for the protection they offered, but as the Protestants resisted any change and became more violent, the troops became caught in the middle, and then regarded as the enemy. This film shows what can happen to a platoon of troops called in to back up the local constabulary force searching for hidden guns in Catholic homes.
Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) is a 23-year-old orphan, whom we first see visiting and playing with his young brother Derren, who lives in the same orphanage. Gary, now a newly trained member of the British Army, has been called to go with his regiment to Belfast, so he is saying goodbye and assuring the fearful boy that he will soon be back with him.
As soon as they are off the boat in Belfast they are billeted on folding cots in a former schoolhouse. Their black corporal (Babou Ceesay) tells Gary and his buddy Thompson (Jack Lowden) and the rest of the squad that they’ll “only be staying here ‘til one of the Paddies shoot you.” The next day the green platoon officer Lt. Armitage (Sam Reid), wanting to appear less warlike to the Catholic residents, orders his men to leave behind their shields and helmets with face visors. The corporal knows this is a bad idea, but is over-ruled. They are trucked into West Belfast where groups of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) await their arrival. Gary and his mates are taken aback by the rotten vegetables and fruit that come hurtling over a wall, thrown by a group of boys who jeer at and insult them. The younger children playing on the street are shooed inside, and before each door a woman bends down and beats on the sidewalk with the lid of a garbage can. More than just a signal to everyone who can hear the loud clanging, it is an act of defiance, an in your face taunt that you are not welcome here. We soon see why the outsiders are hated so. Made up of die-hard Protestants, the RUC seem to have patterned its treatment of Catholics after the way the Nazi SS treated the Jews. Some of them actually enjoy clubbing anyone who dares to stand up to them, four or five of them gathering around a fallen man and kicking and clubbing him. They break into homes and ransack them in their search for weapons, offering no apologies when they find none.
Soon a large, enraged crowd has gathered, the soldiers forming a barrier between them and the RUC. Yells, taunts, and insults are hurled at them, the latter from IRA members always present at such confrontations. When a boy grabs the rifle dropped by a soldier when he was hit by a rock, Lt. Armitage orders Gary and Thompson to take off after him. They catch up with the boy and grab the gun, but are themselves quickly surrounded by IRA thugs who overpower and knock them down. They beat and kick the two, obviously intending to kill them. A woman yells at them and pulls them off the young soldiers, telling her compatriots that she is ashamed of them. Her good deed is swept aside when two IRA members Paul Haggerty (Martin McCann) and Sean Bannon (Barry Keoghan) walk up, Paul shooting Thompson point-blank in the head. He would have done the same to Gary, had not the soldier run away as fast as his legs could move. In the meantime, the besieged troops and RUC goons flee the scene.
The chase is one of the most thrilling that I have seen, the hand held camera, which earlier I had regarded as a nuisance at times, now truly making viewers feel like they are part of the chase. With the IRA man firing his pistol at him, Gary runs into alleys, through doors into shadowy hallways, out into the open again, down a street, into an alley, over a fence, through yards, and so on. The tough training that we saw at the beginning of the film is paying off. Darkness falls, and Gary is still alive, though very tired. The street scenes of cars burning, mobs running and throwing Molotov cocktails call to mind Heironymous Bosch’a painting “Hell,” or a scene from Dante.
He is fortunate for a while—although he does not know it, his twisted course of flight had brought him to the Protestant side of the city. A tough talking nine year-old boy (Corey McKinley) comes upon the exhausted soldier and helps him to his feet. He asks a question that Gary does not realize can be a matter of life or death—is he a Catholic or a Protestant? When Gary does not answer, the boy assumes Gary is as he is, a Protestant. The foul mouth boy apparently has some standing in the UDF, because when he approaches two adults standing watch against any IRA prowlers, he cheekily orders them about, and they do his bidding.
The boy, listed in the cast only as “Loyalist Boy,” takes Gary into a pub and then to a back room of a bar where some men are wiring a bomb. Gary, forbidden to enter, is sent out to the bar. The men worry about how much he had seen. There is some exchange between Gary and one of the men, as well as the boy. They leave Gary alone for a while, telling him to stay put. However, Gary steps outside, possibly for some fresh air. A good thing, for suddenly a huge explosion destroys the pub, wounding and kncking Gary to the ground. When the stunned soldier awakens, he sees the boy with his arms blown off. The dead lad is taken away, and Gary, stumbling on, collapses against a building.
Later two Catholics, Eamon (Richard Dormer) and his daughter Brigid (Charlie Murphy) see Gary passed out on the street, and despite his being a soldier, take him to their apartment. A former medic in the British Army, Eam takes out his kit and with Brigid holding down the screaming lad, stitches up the long gash in his side. They know that to return him to his unit would bring about their own death from the IRA, so they decide to call Boyle (David Wilmot), a man whom they know, who is the leader of the less violent faction of the IRA. They are unaware that Boyle is at odds with the younger leader Quinn (Killian Scott). Paul and Sean, the two IRA men who had tried to catch Gary earlier work under Quin, and are still driving around on the lookout for the soldier.
There is thus internal IRA conflict, plus some double dealing on the part of a man whom Gary had met back at the base that morning, plain-clothes intelligence operative Captain Browning (Sean Harris), supposedly on the side of the British, but also working with the IRA. How all these factions come together in an explosive climax make this survival thriller a real nail biter. The filmmakers do not delve into the political ideology or the history. They just give us a tale in which the good and the innocent often suffer unjustly and the bad do not receive their just desserts—this is not a fictional Liam Neeson or Arnold Schwarzenegger fantasy, but a much more realistic film, embodying well the anguish of the author of Psalm 10.
The review with a set of discussion questions will be in the April Visual Parables.