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Junkies, sirens, a city of half-eaten ears

Shell suits shimmered. A middle-aged man munched Wotsits. Someone else gurgled a gollier up and down an out-of-view nose shaft. Lovers in fake fur jackets, cuddled. Cineworld Parnell Street on a Thursday night for Brendan Muldowney’s debut film: Savage, starring Darren Healy and Nora-Jane Noone. I was really apprehensive. Most films about Ireland – and especially Dublin – are of the Carrolls Gifts & Souvenirs variety. Jovial women with croissant-shaped curls scrubbing doorsteps, their bacon rumps facing the sky…orthopaedically-challenged husbands bandying down to the pub for a game of cards. Or when the shit-grit is tackled, it usually depicts gangland scangers as dotingly hilarious, in-between ripping nails off with a pliers or disembowelling with a blowtorch for a €200 cocaine debt while a St. Patrick’s Day parade carries on as normal outside.

I was apprehensive too because there’s a PC-tendency to deny what is freely available to the naked eye all over Dublin: junkies lurching  forward in Zombie mode spouting delirium (“scuzzzzzz meeeeee, hav yi got mi bus fayerrr”), Romany kids being led to beg for people who can’t look after them, homeless men covered in piss eating out of bins, mothers fag-choking their fetals to birth outside the Rotunda, shoplifters and car thieves creating ‘opportunities’ in a country where policy stolidly lacks them. And so on. Nothing is as scary as the streets of Dublin at night-time, even if you’re terminally twee and desperately want to pretend you’re blind.

There was a 300% rise in muggings in the city centre in the first quarter of this year, some of which were grotesquely violent (one guy had part of his ear bitten off in the process): the youngest perpetrator turned 12 a few weeks ago. Stab statistics are higher than ever with a notable rise in ‘unprovoked’ attacks. Murder stats are no better: 59 murders and other violent deaths in Dublin in the past two years. Almost as many guns now as hurley sticks begorrah: a gaggle of machine guns were seized by Gardaí last week on the North Circular Road, no doubt business aids for the burgeoning drug market. Staff at Mountjoy Prison staged a walk-out last month in protest against the rise in inmate violence. Out beyond in the suburbs a few bored thugs shoved a firework into a female terrier’s mouth and blew off her jaw. The same thing happened to a bunch of swans in a city park that were fed fireworks concealed in folded slices of bread. Shit City at its best…

…so would Savage be able to colour Dublin with just the right shade of gritty realism? The plot is plain-flour simple: a man tries to come to terms with a brutal random attack and its consequences:

To me this is a film about the effects of personal trauma using Dublin as a whirring backdrop. The cinematography is incredible (filmed in drained monochrome and with shades of oppressive gun-metal grey) which makes it even more of a horror film as you witness Paul, the main character, sink further and further into a Dantesque wheelie bin. There’s such an odd sense of detachment and otherworldly strangeness about him. It’s no surprise that Darren Healy, who plays this lead-role, received a 2010 IFTA nomination. His is a stunning and memorable performance. In many ways this victim turned killer is already a peculiar character before the life-changing assault. He floats above the daily drudge and its cruel realities….which is the life of many press photographers and journalists. The periphery actors who walk the track suit catwalk around Dublin’s mean streets at night, are also superb. They are idiotic and gratuitous and bored and dangerous and unaware. The city for them is a dystopian scrapheap from which to extract shiny bits of metal at any [human] cost.

There’s actually very little violence in the film, despite what you might hear (!), most is suggested but the nugget that is in-your-face will have you pulling your retina clear off. Sound is very cleverly used too (“a visceral rollercoaster ride”, Muldowney called it) assaulting the senses, dragging you wincingly and mincingly inside Paul’s mountingly paranoid trauma. The Director drew his inspiration from various real-life stories including that of New Yorker Bernhard Goetz, the ‘subway vigilante’. He shot four young men on a subway in Manhattan on December 22, 1984, after they tried to mug him. He’d been mugged before and starting carrying a gun ‘just in case’ but was accused in court of actively seeking out trouble. Also the brutal deaths of British soldiers Derek Wood and David Howes, dragged from their car in Belfast in 1988 during an IRA funeral, found later that day in wasteland beaten and executed and bloodied.

What works is that the revenge is not exacted on those who deserve it, but on mere incidentals. It happens a lot. It’s how and why we have victims of crime. Person A is desensitised by a mix of familial violence and lack of care. A meets B, from a similar background and they pathologically wreak havoc on F who spends the rest of his life wondering what happened, himself now desensitised, etc. Ireland grew this particular bacterial brand of densensitisation en-masse in the 1950s/60/70s, with a great deal of help from church-run institutions. Knead this with an ungovernable drug problem and you have a city that is as much about random acts of incredible violence as it is about bodhrans and dead heroes.

The filming, lighting and direction is superb throughout. Although for me, the script has holes in it. Female characters are poor, both in terms of their lines and the actors. Paul’s romantic interest with the nurse/carer Nora-Jane Noone is weak and spectral. “We’ve all been there, where we just have to hold someone’s hand until they’re back on their feet,” she said in an interview about her luvvy role. However, she seems to be a cipher rather than a living, breathing human being. It would’ve been a lot stronger without the crud romance thrown in for good popcorn measure. That being said it is a sincere film, a study of unbending aggression borne out of savourless trauma. Expect to look at city streets differently, especially on cold dank nights on cobbled paths, when a hooded teenager walks towards you and smiles for no reason.