D: Morgan Bushe / 86m
Cast: Pat Shortt, Lewis MacDougall, Michael Smiley, Lauren Kinsella, Art Parkinson, Peter Coonan, Cian Gallagher, Ronan Graham, Ernie Gallagher, Áine Ní Mhuirí
In a small rural town in Ireland, there’s a caravan park called Moody’s that has been closed ever since the death of its owner a few years before. After a stint in Scotland with an aunt and uncle, the owner’s son, Joey (MacDougall), has returned to re-open the site and restore it to its former glory. He’s fifteen. Also arriving in town at the same time is Ronald Tanner (Shortt), desperately in need of money to fund his ailing wife’s medical treatments, and hoping to sell a thousand Chinese made toys to local businessman and political wannabe Gits Hegarty (Smiley). When Hegarty cruelly turns him down, Ronald parks his van at the caravan site overnight while he tries to work out what to do next. However, Joey’s curiosity about what’s inside the van gets the better of him and a badly disposed of cigar leads to the van, and Ronald’s stock of toys, going up in flames. Joey determines to help Ronald in any way he can to make amends, and when they become aware of payments Hegarty makes to a couple of local criminals, they decide to steal the next payment for themselves…
Morgan Bushe’s feature debut, co-written with Greg Flanagan, owes almost its entire existence to the work of the Coen brothers. It’s that kind of movie: an homage that pillages the Coens oeuvre freely and willingly, but alas, without adopting the control over the material that helps to make the brothers’ work so successful. It’s a bleak, misery-driven piece that has trouble expressing itself as the grimly humorous movie it wants to be, and it piles so many setbacks and obstacles onto the shoulders of its ostensible heroes that by rights they should be crushed flat before they even begin to think about robbing Hegarty. Literally nothing goes right for either one of them, from Joey alienating his best friend, Lanks (Parkinson), to Ronald succumbing to the alcoholism he’s kept at bay for so long. As misfits go they’re pretty spectacular in their ability to dig themselves a bigger and bigger hole that they can’t get out of, and it’s obvious that their get-rich-quick scheme is doomed to (relative) failure, but with Bushe determined to put them through the wringer time and time again, any real sense of self-awareness – or self-preservation – is abandoned before it’s even considered.
This all keeps the main storyline unfolding with the grim inevitability of a traffic accident that could have been avoided if both drivers had noticed the lights were on red, and though Shortt and MacDougall have their moments, their efforts are overwhelmed by the unremitting obduracy of the movie’s tone, and a mood that swings between cheerless and downbeat as if they were the only two choices available to Bushe, and which suited the narrative. Only Smiley manages to rise above the gloomy nature of the material, and he does so by being openly malign and horrible in a way that suggests he views Hegarty as the kind of moustache-twirling villain who can’t help overplaying his hand at every turn (and not as the arch manipulator that Bushe may have intended). Shot in a deliberately downbeat visual style by DoP Arthur Mulhern that further promotes the oppressive atmosphere that’s cultivated and encouraged throughout, even the sub-plots feature stories that are bleak and disturbing. With all this, it’s hard to believe that there could be any light at the end of the tunnel, there is redemption and hope on offer in the movie’s final scenes, but inevitably, these pale rays of sunshine come too late to save Bushe’s debut from giving the viewer a series case of the miseries.
Rating: 5/10 – a dark and melancholy movie that wallows in the doldrums of its own making, The Belly of the Whale is as far from a laugh riot as you can get without it being Angela’s Ashes (1999); with only occasional flashes of inspiration, and the odd, unexpected visual flourish to help things along, this “black comedy” may only appeal to viewers who will see Joey and Ronald’s individual predicaments as situations that make them feel better about their own lives.