Annie Curran checks out Cardboard Gangsters, which screened at this year’s Cork Film Festival.
“Suffer the pain of discipline or suffer the pain of regret” reads the wall of the gym where Jason Connolly, protagonist of Cardboard Gangsters, aggressively hits a punching bag. This mantra ultimately proves to be the lesson that Jason and his friends learn as they find themselves more and more entangled in the initially alluring world of the Darndale drug trade.
Actor John Connors, who co-wrote the dramatic crime film with director Mark O’Connor, stars as Jason. The film was largely inspired by Connors’ own experience growing up in the neighborhood, which is situated on the Northside of Dublin and is a hotbed of cyclical social problems. During a post-screening Q&A at the Cork Film Festival, O’Connor stated that since the Cardboard Gangsters are a product of their environment, their goal as filmmakers was to show the “humanity of these characters.”
Jason and his group of three childhood friends are involved in small-time drug dealing. But as economic pressures mount, Jason concedes to his friend Dano’s wishes to begin selling “brown,” even though their neighborhood has been the authoritative and tyrannical Derra Murphy’s terrain for their entire lives. As to be expected, Derra does not take kindly to the newfound business competition.
From loansharking to unplanned pregnancy, Cardboard Gangsters expertly details the variety of social problems that Darndale residents face. In one heated exchange, Jason’s friend Cobbie is called a “Nigerian,” to which he has to defend himself as “Irish bred and born,” thus highlighting the racism that remains embedded with certain facets of Irish society. These social problems do not feel heavy-handed or clichéd, which is owed to Connors and O’Connor’s authenticity of experience.
Connors gives a masterful performance as Jason, who initially does not want to take over Derra’s territory. During an early scene where Jason attempts to pick up a welfare check, his face is framed next to an advert for a “Low-Self Esteem Clinic.” This framing tells the audience everything they need to know about the problematic masculinity that is created out of the limited options in Darndale. Jason’s check is refused because he has been DJ-ing as a hobby, thus implying that his attempts to better himself through healthy choices can’t even pull him out of the cycle of crime.
Perhaps the film’s finest cinematographic achievements are the sprawling one-take tracking shots. Producer Richard Bolger joked at the Q&A about the logistical stress of shooting one scene in particular, where Jason terrorizes a man with a chainsaw. While the scene might have been an insurer’s nightmare, the results are equally terrifying and electrifying. The filmmakers frequently use the frame to emphasize how the men get trapped into a world of crime, including shots where they walk behind fences that look like jail cells and are silhouetted by smoking piles of trash.
In an effort to present every day life in Darndale, the film contains a fair amount of scenes that don’t necessarily drive the plot. This is best exhibited in the music videoesque sequences that show the characters hanging out, selling, and simply living their lives. The hip-hop and rock influenced soundtrack is made up of all-Irish musicians and mostly local Darndale musicians. The filmmakers felt it was imperative to get the music right in order to capture Darndale’s local culture. As such, one of their inspirations was the 2015 biographical film Straight Outta Compton, which details the early lives of hip-hop group N.W.A.
Cardboard Gangsters truly shows the psychological effects of not suffering the pain of discipline. The scene where Jason breaks down into his mother’s arms is one of the most poignant moments I’ve seen in recent cinema. Jason gives into his vulnerability and the results are gut-wrenching and powerful. O’Connor told the audience at Cork Film Festival that is was very important to Connors that the film showed at-risk youth that dealing drugs will never end well.
To do this more effectively, the film highlights the suffering of all of the characters, even Derra. During a tracking shot of a robbery of the liquor store, the camera zooms in on the panicked face of an alarmed employee, before focusing back on the action. This moment painfully reminds the audience that the whole community is victimized by these crimes. But additionally and most importantly, the film shows how Jason, his friends, and Derra are victimized by their own crimes, which leads to the conclusion’s violent trail of revenge. The idiom an “eye for an eye” has never rang more true.
Cardboard Gangsters screened on 20th November 2016 as part of the Cork Film Festival 2016 (11 – 20 November)
Cardboard Gangsters is set to open in cinemas across Ireland in February 2017.