June Butler explores religion, numbers and Newton’s Law of Energy under the skin of Eoin Macken’s debut feature.
Here Are The Young Men has been deftly (and expertly) translated into a multi-layered ethea of teenage existential angst by director Eoin Macken, with the story taken from Rob Doyle’s book of the same name. Macken is eminently sure of his craft and his handling of a sensitive subject is imbued with pathos and empathy.
The tale was originally composed with four main characters in mind: Matthew, Rez, Cocker, and Kearney but Macken juxtaposed the character of Matthew with that of Cocker to create a hybrid – He judged well because the trio of Matthew, Rez and Kearney is infinitely more stable as an emotional and visual metaphor.
There are nods to an inner turmoil as expressed by Matthew, the central figure in the plot – a conflict that ultimately implodes in the dying moments of the film. Strong overtones of belief systems bordering on recognised religious tenets remain a critical essence of the narrative. Numbers too, play a psychological role in the drama along with the introduction of the Fibonacci code – these same numbers approach the Golden Ratio as they increase in value. All aspects are essential to sustaining an overarching pace and sense of the story as it unfolds.
Opening scenes show Matthew (Dean-Charles Chapman) on his final day at school. He sits in the office of a kindly lecturer (Ralph Ineson) and broodingly endures the ‘motivating’ chat encouraging him to make something of his life with the teacher pointing out that choices are Matthew’s alone to make. Matthew meets up with Kearney (Finn Cole), and Rez (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) both long-time acquaintances. For Matthew, Kearney embodies a fantasy of chaos while Rez signifies a seemingly deeper sense of introversion. However, as the storyline evolves, it soon becomes apparent that the reserve displayed by Rez is essentially the shallowest of affectations and the all-consuming rage shown by Kearney is a ticket to annihilation. The trio decide to embark on a hedonistic dash opting to wreak mayhem and carnage over the following summer. They take drugs. They drink to excess. They vandalise and cause material harm to others. It is a wanton, endless foray into self-indulgent debauchery.
Matthew initially invests in Rez and Kearney‘s plans with enthusiasm but as time passes, he starts to question his role in the group activities. Matthew’s vacillation between one philosophy and the other, chaos versus nothing, becomes less of an active choice and more sutured toward the knee-jerk response of a drowning man clutching at straws. At one stage, Matthew appears to zone out when he’s around Kearney as he blindly follows the demonically persuasive Kearney but bit by bit, reservations creep in. There would be an initial phase of hesitation by Matthew joining Kearney in his various criminal enterprises – rarely questioning the moral undertones of Kearney’s actions but Matthew starts to have nagging doubts. Matthew’s delaying tactics between inaction and following Kearney’s orders to the extreme, became longer and more frequent. In the film, director Macken utilises more extreme close-up framing with the central character of Matthew than with any other cast member in order to bring Matthew’s internal narrative to the fore. Matthew’s facial expressions indicate doubt, anxiety, shame, rapidly veering into misery and a sense of dishonour when his girlfriend Jen (Anya Taylor Joy) updates him on Kearney’s actions. Matthew’s titanic tussle between right and wrong, the wrangling disorder, followed by a sense of aching despair, all fleeting visual manifestations, show seismic evolution and a gravitational pull towards self-actualization as the story moves forward.
There are acknowledged quasi-religious undertones relative to the story throughout the film. Matthew, Kearney and Rez repeatedly take drugs in the form of pills and intone ‘amen’. Elements of Christianity, Gnosticism, Zoroastrianism and Manicheism are most noticeable but they are overtaken at crucial moments by a nihilistic perspective. Rez is the key proponent of the latter. He sees the world as filled with nothing and at critical moments in the narrative, acts out in order to grasp a sense of actually truly living. Rez is a narcissist – he cares for no other than himself alone and behaves accordingly. Girlfriends, acquaintances and erstwhile friends succumb while Rez enters a twilight world where he self-gratifies through the auspices of intellectual onanism. However, Matthew also expresses a sense of nihilistic numbness by noisily staggering from one disaster to the next and failing to get to grips with who he really is. Multiple scenes at various parties follow Matthew vaguely aware of his surroundings, viewing the world through the lens of impassive detachment. Director Macken cuts the sound in some scenes and forces the drugged-up Matthew to stumble from room to room in a bubble of distorted echoes– this visual and aural mechanism allows audiences to connect more with Matthew’s private anguish.
Manichaeism is a form of dualistic religion based on salvation through gnosis or knowledge holding that life in this world is inherently painful yet moralistic, but also fundamentally evil. Manichaeism describes a fight between an ethical world of light and the materiality of darkness taken from the universe of matter. The religion rivalled Christianity at one stage and also derived some of its teachings from Zoroastrianism. Gnosticism adheres to learning coming from redemption through that knowledge. Kearney is a devotee to the battle between good and bad but choses being fiendishly immoral. He presents himself as a disciple of Gnosticism, Manichaeism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism – he possesses the gnosis or knowledge that will redeem others. Kearney also holds sway over the ultimate clash of Titans, a firm grasp on being wicked without conscience or it seems consequences. Wise counsel versus heinous villainy. Facing an agony of indecision, Matthew considers his options. Follow Kearney without question or discover his own path in accordance as to what his principles persuade him to do. Freedom to choose is a false prophet. It is arbitrary, driven by outcomes, based on cultural norms, and through Matthew’s ethical descent into the abyss, comes with the greatest toll of all – a hideous roller-coaster to oblivion filled with self-loathing and despair. Freedom, it is suggested, is having the ability to behave without constraint but it is difficult to view either Matthew, Rez or Kearney as being truly free. Matthew is enthralled to Kearney. Kearney is driven by adulation and the need for sociopathic dominion over others. Rez is captivated by an empty vessel – himself. Filling that same vessel with disarray is the only way in which Rez knows he will bleed if he is cut.
Numbers play a small but weighty part in how psychological elements can exact a crucial role. The Fibonacci sequence is such that each subsequent number is the sum of the two preceding ones. As the figures increase, they come to represent the Golden Mean or Golden Ratio. Nature follows the rule of Fibonacci numbers – it can be found in branching on trees, phyllotaxis in the arrangement of leaves on a stem, the sequence of bracts on a pineapple or pine cone, the flowering of an artichoke and an unfurling fern. The numbers can even be located within financial markets and stock exchanges. On a psychological level, the triumvirate of Matthew, Rez, and Kearney is a Fibonacci number. Jen represents the figure one as in one love interest. Matthew is the single central character – this also equals one. Matthew has two friends within the trio – Rez and Kearney – the duo equal two. Matthew, Rez and Kearney equal the number 3. So in accordance with the Fibonacci code, it is 1 (Jen), + 1 (Matthew) = 2. 2 (Rez and Kearney) + 1 (Group of Three) = 3. The cast and groupings form the first four digits of the Fibonacci code.
On top of allusions to the Golden Ratio and religious undertones throughout the film, Macken also makes oblique reference to Newton’s Law of Energy at play between the characters. One scene shows Matthew looking pensive and within that setting, on the table to his left is a Newton’s Cradle. Newton’s Cradle is a device that demonstrates the conservation of force and momentum. The item also proves the existence of the Law of Energy in that energy cannot be created or destroyed but can only be converted from one form to another. Within the dynamic of Kearney and Matthew, and to a lesser extent Kearney and Rez, that same vigour fluctuates back and forward, neither increasing nor decreasing but rather converting Kearney’s energy into a poles-apart form so that it manifests in an altered state of translation.
Here Are the Young Men is a coming-of-age story with a twist. It is about reaching maturity, taking responsibility, learning from actions taken, whether passive or active, and discovering that regardless of tempting possibilities, life is filled with penalties for a heedless road less taken despite it being paved with good intentions. The ultimate message is to look before you leap. Consideration before activation.