Neil Jordan is all the evidence needed to convince Hollywood
that there can and should be movies that aren’t designed to break opening box office records. Hollywood moguls used to know this. Executives knew they could produce movies that were never going to achieve mass appeal, but could still make a profit because they were made on small budgets. Today even if a movie is made on a low budget the studios have to spend thirty million dollars promoting it.
Why? Because even though there are more movie screens in America than ever before, there are actually fewer movies opening per year than ever. If studios would quit forcing multiplexes to show movies Pirate of the Caribbean II that have no justification whatever being three hours long on half the screens of a multiplex just to ensure they make their money back, there would more screens available to show the good movies that Neil Jordan directed.
Notice I said the good movies that Neil Jordan directed. Neil Jordan is an Irish filmmaker who has made some of the best-and worst-movies of the past twenty years. Not surprisingly, those movies he has made that were supposed to make huge truckloads of money are his worst, and those movies that were greenlighted in the full knowledge that they wouldn’t be able to compete at the box office with things like the Star Wars sequels the Matrix sequels are not only his finest achievements, but also some of the finest cinematic achievements of recent years.
Mainly because I don’t want to waste my time on them, this article will overlook Neil Jordan’s schlock: We’re No Angels, High Spirits, Interview with the Vampire. Although there are some elements of that last movie to recommend it, for the most part it was doomed from the moment that Tom Cruise got the idea in his head he could play a vampire. Too bad we can’t go back in time and cast James Marsters as Lestat, though now that I consider it, I’d much rather watch a single scene of Marsters as Spike on Buffy the Vampire Slayer than watch him slough through Anne Rice’s deadheaded vampire saga.
I’m not sure whether Neil Jordan subconsciously shoots himself in the foot when he’s handed a big budget film or whether he just can’t make a good movie without good source material, but he is at his absolute best when making movies that seem personal even if they aren’t. In the early 80s there was a bizarre onslaught of werewolf movies. The two best of the lot were An American Werewolf in London and Jordan’s The Company of Wolves.
Whereas he would later botch the whole idea of the sexual undertones of the vampire myth in the aforementioned Interview with the Vampire-and again, I believe his botching had more to do with Anne Rice’s overwrought and overthought source material than Jordan’s interpretation-he hit it right on in The Company of Wolves. There is such an amazing sexual subtext to The Company of Wolves that the screen nearly seems ready to incinerate at any moment.
Almost like watching a dream unfold, The Company of Wolves takes as its starting place the original big bad wolf story of Little Red Riding Hood. This is an painfully honest depiction of the burgeoning sexuality of a young woman. It is deeply symbolic with the red hood representing at its most basic level menstruation, but at a deeper level the maturation of girl into woman. And the wolf isn’t just some evil beast, nor is it just a symbol of the innate primacy of man; the wolf is both something to fear and embrace.
Horror films are always at their best when they offer a glimpse into the psychology of the family unit. The reason Stanley Kubrick’s version of The Shining is so superior to either King’s literary or later film version is that Kubrick boiled the story down to the disintegration of the familial structure when the father rejects his appointed role as the caretaker.
The Company of Wolves is similarly concerned with the psychology of the relationship between man and woman, especially of the trauma of the loss of innocence for young females. There is something dark in the woods and the young girl is both drawn to it and frightened. But is she frightened by what’s in the woods, or by the fact that she is drawn to it in the first place? Try to imagine this film being made with a bunch of Hollywood suit types trying to justify their salaries by making unwarranted changes. Frightening. Thank God Neil Jordan made it when he did.
Neil Jordan’s most famous film is probably The Crying Game. A surprise hit when it came out that truly was an example of buzz over hype due to ithe most incendiary of its many shocking revelations, it is a haunting movie that stays with you for a long time. The Crying Game is also an excellent example of how to unleash a gotcha moment without cheating the audience in the way that Shyamalan does in The Sixth Sense. Whereas the revelation of Bruce Willis’ character is achieved by false framing in that movie, the shocking secret at the center of The Crying Game is right there for all to see. He never takes steps to hide what’s really going on.
If The Crying Game only had that secret going for it, however, I wouldn’t be talking about it now. The only other movie I can think of that uses pop songs more effectively is the non-director’s cut of Donnie Darko. The movie begins with “When a Man Loves a Woman” and ends with Lyle Lovett’s version of “Stand by Your Man” and in between are a collection of tunes that guide you toward what this movie is really about if you pay close attention.
This is a movie that shocks at every turn. The first big surprise of the movie is that the most recognizable face-at the time anyway-and what appears to be a central character gets killed fairly early on. The death is stunning and when it happens you can’t help but wonder where the movie goes from there. All that time spent building up a relationship between two truly unique film characters and suddenly one of them is gone. Amazing.
The Crying Game received a lot of flak for portraying its main character as a Disneyfied IRA soldier. But to say that is like saying all soldiers are the same. Stephen Rea was robbed of an Oscar for his role in this movie. Right from the beginning we understand that his Fergus is no hardcore ideologue. He is a guy who probably got into the IRA because of a girl and is just going along for the ride. What happens to him over the course of the movie carries forth that same characteristic. This is a guy. A guy who follows his life wherever it takes him. Nothing is ever planned.
He allows what happens to him to happen until finally he realizes that for once in his life he has to shape his own destiny, consequences be damned. The critique that this movie is unrealistic is ridiculous. As I used to be fond of saying, Cher is an Oscar winner, don’t ever tell something is impossible. I have recently changed that to Bush got re-elected, don’t ever tell me something is impossible. This movie was a flop in England mainly because it featured a British soldier becoming friendly with an IRA terrorist. Critics claim that it would be like making a movie in which a black man becomes friends with a member of the KKK. Hey, guess what, Lebanese soldiers were just videotaped offering Israeli soldiers tea.
There is a moment in The Crying Game that I love. It is my absolute favorite scene in the movie. Stephen Rea’s character is haunted by dreams of the dead British soldier coming at him in a cricket pose. After the shocking revelation I am desperately trying to skirt around, he has the dream again. Only this time it’s slightly different, there is a different look on the soldier’s face. Watch it closely. The look on Forest Whittaker’s face contains more layers of meaning than you will find in all the scenes of the Lord of The Rings trilogy combined. And that’s a freaking large number of scenes! What are we talking about now, 40 hours worth of scenes?
Another must-see Neil Jordan movies is the vastly underrated and almost completely unknown The Butcher Boy. There is almost nothing I can tell you about this movie because it has even more twists and turns than The Crying Game, though nothing as explicitly shocking as that movie. Once again featuring the most underrated actor in movies today, Stephen Rea, the movie is really about his son. (Though Rea appears at the end as the grown up version of the boy.) Perhaps the simplest explanation of the movie I can possibly give is that it is the story of how society helps to create a psychopath.
Taking place in a small, close-knit village-the kind of village that we’ve been informed it takes to raise a child-The Butcher Boy instead tells the disturbing story of a village that turns it back on a needy child. The child who needs our love the most is the one who rarely gets it. Francie isn’t a particularly likable child, and his father is a downright bastard and his mother is suicidal. Francie needs society to help him out, but every aspect of that very society-from the church on down-turn their back on him. He is let go, allowed to descend into madness that is only partially his own fault.
Watching this movie is a strange experience; I’m not sure there is any other movie about child abuse and neglect that is also so freaking funny. Rest assured, this isn’t some Hollywood melodrama that was made in an attempt to win an Oscar based on a being about an “important subject.” This isn’t Angelina Jolie’s version of a movie about the painful effects of neglecting our children; this is a black comedy.
Of special interest is rock star Sinead O’Conner’s cameos as an image of a Catholic icon known as Our Lady who occasionally speaks to young Francie. One of the funniest moments in the film is Stephen Rea’s reaction to her when she makes her first appearance to the adult version of Francie. Also of interest to fans of the Harry Potter movies is that the woman who plays Harry’s aunt Petunia turns in a terrific performance as the primary source of anger for young Francie. What he does inside her homeÃ¢Â?Â¦wellÃ¢Â?Â¦you really do need to see for yourself.
In 1997 the Oscar race for Best Picture came right down to the wire with Shakespeare in Love slipping in at the end to take it away from Saving Private Ryan. Neither should have won. The Butcher Boy was far and away the best movie released in 1997.