John Boorman had been getting more explicitly political for about a decade, but he moves his focus from far-away jungles to close to home, namely his adoptive home of Dublin. Based on a book by Paul Williams, Boorman wrote his script about the brazen and notorious criminal Martin Cahill with a particular emphasis on a melancholic attitude towards Ireland, using Cahill as a vehicle for this telling of the collapse and, perhaps, reconstruction of Irish society into something new. It’s easy to see how this story could get pushed in the direction of Boorman’s larger points about civilization, the heart of darkness, and losing our humanity in the face of technology.
Cahill (Brendan Gleeson) grew up in Dublin having to steal every little thing in order to find the kind of small luxuries in life, like when he stole some pastries, giving one to his future wife Frances (Maria Doyle Kennedy). He develops an extreme “us versus them” mentality towards pretty much everyone outside of his small group of friends, family, and fellow criminals. It’s not just him versus the police, but also the IRA and the church. No one is on his side except those within his group, the Hollyfields. His chief antagonist, though, is the police, represented by Inspector Ned Kelly (Jon Voight), an officer from the same area brought back to the neighborhood when Cahill reaches adulthood and starts on his small tirade of crime.
Leading a small cadre of criminals with his second in command Noel (Adrian Dunbar), they initiate a series of increasingly brazen heists while Cahill has to keep his family together under increasing pressure from the police in response to his actions. The first is an armed robbery where Cahill, in a moment of frustration, hits his helmet against a bit of wood, leaving a mark of paint on his helmet that the police are able to use to acquire physical evidence which leads to actual charges against Cahill. While the trial goes on, Cahill, who is free, organizes a heist on a fortified jewelry wholesaler that even the IRA had decided to back off from, which is successful. He also starts learning the law in trying to find ways out of his trial from trying to have the whole proceeding declared as a mistrial through disturbances to threatening the sole witness into changing her testimony about feeling threatened to get him out of the most demanding charge.
What tips the scales in terms of police response to Cahill’s antics is his brazen theft of a dozen works of art, including a $20 million Vermeer, from an Irish estate. It leads to an obvious and brazen effort from the police to monitor his every movement as they make no effort to hide their presence, walking right behind him in uniform all the time, and following him in their marked cars when he drives.
Cahill seems to represent something about the Irish identity, especially when you consider the early parts of his story. His lower-class beginnings and his efforts to fight the larger powers, especially through a real estate deal that left poorer tenants without a place to live, making him something of a working class hero in of the time. However, despite the film centering on him and, perhaps, treating him with some level of kid gloves, I don’t think the film is all that enamored with him personally. I was reminded of both Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and Scorsese’s Goodfellas where both showed the highs of an immoral and illegal life, only to counterbalance with the views of the downfalls. The highs here are nowhere near the dizzying heights of the previous films, but I get the same structural sensibilities. Throw in the fact that the film does show Cahill being a violent psychopath from time to time, like the scene where he crucifies one of his mates on a pool table because he thinks he stole a gold bar from him before taking him to the hospital, and you’ve got a portrait of a man who is extremely prone to violence in horrible ways.
I also don’t get a sense that the film disapproves of the police response. The police are dismissive and rhetorically abusive towards Cahill and his family, but Cahill is violent and stealing anything that’s not nailed down. As the film moves into its final act, things begin to move from just following Cahill’s actions towards a more melancholic tone. It’s right about the time Cahill intentionally shoots a friend in the knee that this is happening, and it’s countered with the police’s most obnoxious attempts to get under Cahill’s skin. I get the sense that Boorman feels like Cahill deserved it. I don’t think that Boorman hated Cahill, though (despite Cahill stealing his gold album for the Deliverance soundtrack, something that gets shown in the film). I think Boorman saw Cahill as something of a tragic figure, a man driven by a sense of justice early in life and who got completely lost in crime as things went on.
It really makes me think that Cahill is supposed to represent something of Ireland for Boorman. Something about a people, facing centuries of dominance from England, refusing to find themselves a better way out and descending into criminality (Cahill says at one point that half the country is criminals). His downfall is sad because Cahill was smart (Kenny says that early to him) and could have made something more positive of himself, and instead he chose to rob, maim, and steal. Was that all his fault? Perhaps not, but Cahill himself was the main contributor to that.
That angle of tragedy is interesting, and it’s all anchored by Gleeson in the title role. This was his breakout role, and he threw himself into it, covering his face with his hands like Cahill did, wearing his pig themed t-shirts, and being the right kind of interesting crazy as his world builds up and then collapses around him.
This isn’t one of Boorman’s great films. I think it needed to make the rise of Cahill more infectiously entertaining to help make the downfall more impactful, but it’s a well-managed, well-acted, and well-put together production that makes its point well. It’s a nice return to form after the misdirected Beyond Rangoon.
5 thoughts on “The General (1998)”
Interesting that a filmmaker would imply even sidelong that their criminal protagonists deserve consequences.
I find it hard to pin down what Boorman really thought of Cahill. I think Cahill mostly just fascinated him, made all the more potent by his personal connection with the criminal (since Cahill stole that Deliverance gold record from Boorman’s house).
But he does seem to straddle this line between understanding, compassion, and damnation. It’s hard to look at Cahill, as Boorman presents him, and see him as little more than the architect of his own destruction. It’s also interesting that I read a fairly heavy critique of Irish culture in the film, something I don’t think I’m off base reading as part of Boorman’s intent. Equating Cahill with the degraded state of Irish culture itself seems…provocative.
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Another film I’ve seen without realizing it was a John Boorman film.
Is his authorial footprint so light? Or was I just not paying attention…repeatedly?
Anyway, it’s a decent crime drama, your comparison to Goodfellas is apt, I’m inclined to compare it to other movies like “The Long Good Friday” or “Chopper”, though they are stories from England and Australia respectively. The strength and weakness is that the story is based on a real person. That gives you a wealth of material to mine for verisimilitude, but it prevents good storytelling. I almost feel like this should be a fictionalized story ‘inspired by’ Cahil’s life.
I agree, Gleeson is great in this. But yeah, I have next to no sympathy for violent psychopaths like Cahil and I’m glad bad things happened to him.
Visually, his films became less distinct as the years went on and his budgets decreased. There was a precision to everything early, I think, especially in something like Hell in the Pacific, that just kind of got lost after a certain point, that point being the early 90s. He was never a bad technical and visual filmmaker, but his visual distinctiveness seems to have come from ornateness that only comes with large budgets. Without that, he becomes much more…typical.
Ah…The Long Good Friday…that’s a good movie right there…