Resurrection Man (1997)

D: Marc Evans
S: Stuart Townsend, James Nesbitt

Chilling adaptation of Eoin MacNamee's novel taking its inspiration from real events but working them through the filters of gothic horror and narrative convention. Set in 1970s Northern Ireland, the story is drawn from the real-life exploits of Lenny Murphy, a Loyalist paramilitary given to brutal torture which earned his gang the nickname of "The Shankill Butchers". In spite of the setting and this basis in fact, the film is a fanciful thematic exploration of the Irish predisposition to violence not very much different from the scores of political thrillers which preceded it with Catholic and Republican terrorists undergoing various forms of sacrificial self-immolation (The Informer, Odd Man Out, Shake Hands With the Devil; the list is endless). Religion is a factor at least insofar as the title reflects the spiritual ironies of the belief in life after death and in that its central character is from a family of mixed religion (which partly fuels his insanity). Politics are kept very much in the background though, with paramilitary up and comer Victor Kelly (Stuart Townsend) making a name for himself as a hard man in the ranks of Loyalism, but then quickly becoming a dangerous embarrassment which needs to be neutralised. Downtrodden reporter James Nesbitt is eventually led by high-up Sean McGinley to the renegade's lair, and as Nesbitt becomes complicit in the cycle of violence, he is forced to confront his own personal demons.

Resurrection Man derives most of its power from atmosphere. Welsh director Marc Evans works with French cinematographer Pierre Aim (La Haine) to turn various Manchester locations into a gothic Northern Ireland, a kind of nightmare dreamscape which Victor stalks like an ersatz vampire. Not far from the surreal-tinged otherworld of Odd Man Out , Resurrection Man's Belfast is a symbolically charged space in which the drama unfolds not on the level of realism or character drama, but on a plane of metaphor. It is far from the first film to take this approach, but it is arguably the most forceful since Odd Man Out. Taking its cue from the serial killer films of the early nineties, the film concentrates on establishing its villain as a repugnant but attractive figure with the deadly allure of one of Anne Rice's vampires, then pits his acts of extreme cruelty against a pervasive sense of social corruption which hammers home the film's thematic concerns. It is dynamically shot and fairly tightly wound on a dramatic level, making it an effective piece of narrative to which people are likely to react based upon their like or dislike for the genre and for the use of genre in general.

With his contact-lens-darkened eyes and broodings looks, Townsend makes an imposing villain. Though graphic enough in themselves, many of the scenes of torture are made all the more terrifying by his expressions of vacant deliberation as he literally carves up his victims. As in all good horror, the viewer is as much disgusted by the character as they are afraid of him, and Townsend proves well able to sustain this kind of revulsion while also playing a certain variety of cheeky-boy hunk appropriate to the character's psychology. In the novel Victor's obsession with gangster movies is part of his skewed perspective on the world. The character's dynamism and charisma is therefore shown to have shallow and delusional roots, as is his psychosis. Inevitably, of course, this reading of the sectarian psychopath as apolitical metaphor leaves a referential hole in the centre of the text (politics becomes nothing more than another illusory frame of reference with which the unstable character defines himself), but this is the kind of concern which those interested in political representation will find more troubling than the general audience.

An important secondary character is that of Victor's mother, portrayed by Brenda Fricker. While representing certain clichés about the Irish mother and other clichés about the figurehead behind the psychopath, Fricker is able to invest a degree of believable grit into what is again a symbolic role. Most of the supporting cast work along the same lines, taking events seriously enough to draw the audience in while also playing their characters broadly enough to avoid a commitment to social or political realism.

Resurrection Man is ultimately an effective genre piece which sustains an atmosphere of dark horror in spite of the absence of the supernatural. It is not a white-knuckle thrill-ride, nor is it a shock-filled screamfest, but it is an absorbing, stylish look at a scary character in a genre setting whose real-life exploits were arguably even more disturbing. (note: the character Ginger portrayed by Ian Hart in Thaddeus O'Sullivan's Nothing Personal was also based on Lenny Murphy.)

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2003.