Disco Pigs (2001)

D: Kirsten Sheridan
S: Cillian Murphy, Elaine Cassidy

There is a rawness and energy in the performances of the young co-stars of Disco Pigs that goes a long way toward overcoming the shortfalls its script. Director Kirsten Sheridan evinces a level of visual style and imagistic richness comparable with Neil Jordan or Pat Murphy, and this too helps. Neither quite saves the film from its asinine, adolescent screenplay though, adapted from Enda Walsh's acclaimed stageplay by the playwright himself.

The basic story is something of an ersatz Irish Natural Born Killers, or arguably simply another variant on the age-old 'couple on the run' formula. Teenagers Elaine Cassidy and Cillian Murphy were born on the same day, lived in houses beside one another for almost seventeen years now, and are deeply and completely intertwined with one another's lives. As they face their seventeenth birthday, Cassidy (whose character is mostly referred to as 'Runt') has begun to see that there might be more to life than Murphy (known as 'Pig'). This threatens the fabric of their lives, disturbingly so for Murphy, who begins to become even more unstable and violent. When Cassidy is taken away into residential care in order to save her from joining Murphy on his descent into madness, their bond is tested for really the first time in their lives.

Much too easily understood within the frames of reference of the 'no one understands me' genre (The Virgin Suicides) of teenage angst, Disco Pigs has no great sense of a wider social context to frame its action like the classics (Los Olvidados, Rebel Without a Cause). This is not the intention, of course, so it seems pointless to criticise it from that point of view. Yet for all its sledgehammer excess, even Natural Born Killers was able to make the killers' rampage about more than just an internal monologue. Walsh's stage version was able to use the monologue format to explore the complexities of the characters' inner world through language. Murphy does a great job with the stunted English spoken by his character, hinting at a dissatisfaction with conventional language and communication which befits his psychological make-up. Yet these kinds of conceits are best suited to the stage, and sometimes stageplays need significant adaptation or they fail entirely (Dancing at Lughnasa). Mercifully, there are only one or two brief scenes where Sheridan lets the camera sit still and focus on snippets of the monologues, and they stand out as the most frighteningly uninteresting parts of the movie. Thank the stars she had wit enough to ditch the rest.

Sheridan invests considerable emotional energy into the film with the judicious selection of surreal and/or absurdist imagery. It begins with the thoughts and reflections of a foetus in the womb, accompanied by appropriate scenes inside a woman's body. It is the promise of the opening scene of Hush-a-Bye-Baby come to life and it is an exciting opening. From there the film continues to create a convincingly skewed world in which these characters live. Though not as fantastical (or terrifying) as that created by Peter Jackson for his disturbed teens in Heavenly Creatures, it is just left of centre enough to suggest spatial and psychological unease. The largely unfamiliar setting in Cork is also a help here, and adds to the palette of contemporary Irish urban and rural imagery. Most of the film is directed with clarity, energy, and an almost tactile sense of the world as seen by these characters. She has done a marvellous job in matching form to content.

It is therefore all the more pity that the content simply is not inventive enough to make it all worthwhile. The primal scream teen dramas at the base of the story are still bogstandard melodrama, and it is no longer 1955: "you're tearing me apart" just won't wash anymore. In a sense the film needed a greater connection with contemporary Irish society to make it relevant, as these psychological and emotional schisms are internalised to a degree which makes them meaningless for anyone other than an equally angst-ridden teen.

Murphy and Cassidy are very good in the part though. Both of them manage to make their angst interesting. Cassidy's wide-eyed disconnection is believable and sympathetic. Her strong face and curiously dark eyes are entrancing, and Sheridan makes excellent use of her physicality. The actress registers an ethereal quality which makes the character work, and she throws in enough of a sense of her increasing awareness that something is wrong with how they are together to keep the characterisation moving. Murphy is generally delirious throughout the film, with happiness, sorrow, or anger. His general physical deportment suggests a prowling menace which comes to pay off at the climax (predictably, unfortunately), and his tired, haggard appearance contrasts with the energy the character displays. It is one of those Anthony Perkins type characterisations which may forever etch the actor in people's minds as a really good psychopath.

On the whole, Disco Pigs is worth seeing. As an Irish film it is remarkable for several reasons, including being Sheridan's feature debut (after years of making a name for herself in the short film circuit and emerging from the shadow of her father, Jim (The Boxer)). It marks the emergence of what promises to be a distinctive cinematic talent, the first significant female director since Pat Murphy. It is also notable in subject matter insofar as the last major 'teen' movie to come out of Ireland was probably Clash of the Ash (or, arguably, Drinking Crude), although, curiously, the trials of adolescence theme was also featured in the almost simultaneously released On the Edge which also starred Murphy. But it does beg the question of when we draw the line and begin to look at Irish films just as films, or if that is possible at all. Were a film like this to emerge from Hollywood, we would condemn it for its moronic script and story and probably not bother with it at all. Yet in terms of contemporary Irish cinema, even in the wake of groundbreaking work like The Butcher Boy (which this faintly resembles in many respects) or About Adam, we are still thinking parochially. Be that as it may, there is much to admire here and enough that is positive to at least suggest a bright future for its director, and perhaps its stars.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.