The 25th Galway Film Fleadh (9 – 14 July, 2013)
Matt Micucci finds a lot to admire in Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy’s Mister John, which screened at the 25th Galway Film Fleadh.
The film starts with a beautiful shot of the water, and for a while we are lost in its complex but methodical pattern. Then suddenly, we see a corpse come floating into our frame, and the mystery is introduced. Cut to Jerry, a man who after discovering his wife’s infidelity travels to Singapore to look after the business of his dead brother. Once there, he experiences an awakening of sorts and starts warming up to the idea of leaving his old life behind and becoming his brother’s alter ego.
Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy’s follow up to their feature film debut Helen is once again about identity swap brought on by stationary unhappiness and dissatisfaction. However, while in Helen it was seen more from a feminine perspective, Mister John is seen from a masculine one; in fact masculinity is possibly the main theme of the film, particularly a man’s own unrealistic perceptions of masculinity in its most conventional form. Here, it is shown with a perfectly balanced brashness and delicacy, in an extremely compelling fashion and with great emotional depth which is the result of a unique kind of synergy that lies at the heart of the filmmaking style of Lawlor and Molloy.
One of the main features of this style is the pace. Mister John does not exactly qualify as a ‘slow cinema’ kind of film, yet there is no denying that it flows widely unhurried. However, its unhurried approach is greatly rewarding partly thanks to the wonderful connection between filmmakers and the beauty of their Singaporean surroundings, flattered by the choice of shooting it through 35 mm film which makes all the difference especially in the way in which the light is captured and heightens the poetic charge. Furthermore, the camera movements are remarkable; while they are complex and meticulous, they do not get in the way of the action – which is something that often happens in other films that use similar cinematographic techniques. In fact, they strengthen the emotional impact of the long silences and reveal Jerry’s personal struggles in a way in which pages of lines of dialogue could never have been able to.
Of course, much of the reason why this works on screen also goes to Aidan Gillen, who delivers a magnetic performance which is perhaps the kind of performance that Helen lacked and also the kind of performance that this film needed to work in such a powerful way. Gillen’s performance also reveals a perfect connection between character and actor which is quite rare; while Jerry has his moments of bravado, sometimes the situations he finds himself in cause reactions in him that are quite degrading. For instance, when Jerry is bitten by a snake as he visits the lake in which his brother was drowned, the bite causes a reaction which gives him a permanent erection. In another scene, he goes up to Lester, a man who owed his brother money and Jerry’s antagonist of sorts, and threatens him regardless of the fact that it’s easy to see he will be overpowered by Lester, who is twice his size. These two moments in the film are direct confrontations between Jerry and his internal struggles with masculinity. However, Jerry is not an alpha male – he is quite vulnerable and troubled, often getting lost in the meanders of his mind as he is particularly affected by his relationship with his cheating wife and his emasculating problem of impotence.
Gillen’s performance in turn is flattered by the photography which follows his movements faithfully and makes good use of close ups. Moments that are particularly fascinating are those when Jerry suddenly seems to blank as life catches up to him and he is brought back to his own home and a recent fight he had with his wife. His blank expressions in these instances reveal an emotional wall he is unable to break down. These moments are also increasingly rare in today’s cinema, but extremely rewarding.
Another interesting aspect of the narrative is his relationship with his dead brother’s wife, who takes him in her house. Kim is a strong and kind woman. The death of her husband has left her troubled, yet she refuses to let it show. At some point, soon after Jerry’s arrival, she tells him that she will open the bar – the bar which she owned with her husband. Her decision to do so reveals a strength and determination, the very same which Jerry lacks and often even looks to admire. The strong bond which creates between them is something they both need.
Mister John is not just a harrowing character study. Mystery flows naturally through the film and its outbursts feel sudden and sometimes unpredictable. Whether Jerry walks through the streets of Singapore or its forests, the setting too seems to contain a sinister and menacing beauty, the kind of beauty that affects Jerry and his awakening deeply – this damned beauty takes us back to the opening shot where the beauty of the lake is suddenly affected by the floating corpse. However, while the intensity and mystery are quite intense, the film does break it up with moments of comic relief which make it more accessible and contribute to a unique kind of film where mystery, tension and comedy seem to be a natural part of life in general.
Last year, Sight and Sound had its poll of the greatest films of all time. Vertigo came out as the number one film voted by a great number of filmmakers and critics. Yet, while its influence is seen in outbursts in a number of films, Lawlor and Molloy with their Mister John seem to have been part of a restricted group of filmmakers who actually took it in their stride to make a dreamlike and hypnotic modern noir which resembles it directly. Mister John is an incredibly brave and ambitious film for today’s cinematic landscape. It is a film of astounding visual beauty and harrowing character study, one with a unique hypnotic approach to grabbing the audience’s attention and a naturally hard hitting approach at grasping an audience emotionally. Admittedly, some may feel slightly alienated by its pace and Jerry’s passivity, but then again a lot of people find it incredibly hard to sit through a Steven Seagal vehicle as well.