The Crying Game (1992, Neil Jordan)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

The Crying Game opens on an extended shot of a Ferris wheel at a fairground in Northern Island, where its tragic and chaotic events are set into irrecovable motion. As the credits roll by we hear Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” a brilliant song but perhaps one of the more ubiquitously overused music cues from the oft-plundered 1960s canon; yet like everything in writer-director Neil Jordan’s masterpiece, the Sledge song has a specific meaning here. It’s only on second viewing that one appreciates the probing, teasing irony of the use of that song in this film, at this moment. (The movie closes on a version of Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man,” which could work just as well here.)

The camera eventually descends upon the flirtatious Jody, a black soldier from Great Britain enjoying R&R and seeking sexual release — an indulgence for which he pays with his life when he is kidnapped and held hostage by several agents of the IRA. While imprisoned by the brutal but sensitive Fergus (Stephen Rea) and his hard-hearted cronies, Jody repeatedly invokes the woman that this particular man loves, trying to hold on to what he needs, the stunningly beautiful Dil (Jaye Davidson), whose smile and penetrative eyes could plainly, even based on a small photograph, make ripples in a heart and life. Jody will never see her again, and before his fiery, injust demise he will ask Fergus to deliver a message to her.

The Crying Game derives more than a little from the most famous of Jordan’s previous films, the neo-noir Mona Lisa with Bob Hoskins; in some ways that film feels like a dress rehearsal for this one, which is not to diminish either of them. The largest difference is Jordan’s growth as a writer; his screenplay is perfect. Like Psycho, it repeatedly and brilliantly lurches in an unexpected direction, finally becoming a far different and far more multifaceted movie than it initially seemed to be. That Fergus falls hard for Dil once he meets her is not hard to predict. And we may live in a world now wherein what happens afterward is more tragic and inevitable than outright surprising (especially since the central twist of the film has been continually spoiled in other media for the past twenty-three years), but the spins and leaps and turnarounds taken by the film itself are nevertheless endlessly brave and provocative — every story-level gimmick reveals something or other about the people occupying its narrative. That goes doubly when the rogue Fergus starts getting chased through London by his former IRA associates.

The movie’s structure is complex enough that it requires multiple viewings to digest, even though part of its appeal is finally its elegant simplicity — the parts fit together perfectly, but trained to expect certain things from thrillers, you might well be caught offguard by it on first pass. What is immediately endearing about it, however, is its frank, nonchalant treatment of politics, sexuality and race; Jordan’s script and his visual treatment of it, as well as his direction of actors, is almost Renoirian in its even-handedness and preference for the emotional over the theoretical. Not to mention that his romantic perception of the danceclub atmosphere in early 1990s London is breathtaking — cutting edge at the time, it now seems effortlessly to transport us to that time and place, milking it for both its modernity and the way it lends itself to the classic tropes of film noir, replete with a knowing bartender played by Jim Broadbent and many hushed, awkward conversations between performances of the rich songs from the savvy soundtrack, produced in large part by Pet Shop Boys.

As years go by, it’s become clear that the greatest miracle of The Crying Game and what makes it so endlessly haunting is the acting. It will take you months if not years to shake Jay Davidson’s deeply felt mourning and good humor, Stephen Rea’s warring compassion and machismo, and especially the troubling, textured work of Forest Whitaker, whose face lingers long after his final appearance (save as an apparition) early in the film. Still, as a piece of storytelling it remains an emotional powerhouse because it never becomes about its social consciousness, which is always incidental to the erotic charge and despair in its characters. Part of the reason it’s aged extraordinarily well is that we aren’t nearly as progressive about its subject matter as we like to pretend, but the larger reason is that it’s just one of the most genuinely engrossing of all modern thrillers, rife with the sort of humanity, warmth and compassion we only wish infected all of them.

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