Saltwater (2000)

D: Conor McPherson
S: Peter MacDonald, Brian Cox

Tedious film from playwright Conor McPherson, who seems to have graduated through the ranks from a writer of theatrical monologues a film director much too quickly for his own good. Saltwater is an insubstantial and extremely vague drama (based on his stage work This Lime Tree Bower) which attempts and fails to explore the diverging lives of a family and its friends in a small South Dublin community. It follows several individual plot lines under an ill-defined thematic banner which has something to do with language and communication (not that it matters) and deliberately fails to wrap many of them up in the hope of appearing to be part of a tradition of art house cinema which is not. One thread concerns the trials and tribulations of a chip shop owner (Brian Cox) who is in debt to a local loan shark (Brendan Gleeson). Another follows the 'hilarious' adventures of the chip shop owner's son (Peter MacDonald) as he plans to avenge his father's emasculation with a daring plan to humiliate Gleeson. Yet another concerns the younger son (Lawrence Kinlan) who falls in with the wrong schoolmate and gets into all kinds of terribly serious trouble. Then there's their pal the college lecturer (Conor Mullen) who is having an affair with one of his students (Eva Birthistle) and finds it too easy to live with the guilt... There's more if you're interested, but none of it is particularly interesting in its own right and the thematic/metaphoric connections between stories are too contrived. It seems intended to be a kind of Irish Short Cuts, but McPherson is not Robert Altman or Raymond Carver (but you knew that already, right?). The script is filled with clichéd situations and long stretches of highly theatrical dialogue intermingled with moments of action and comedy. There is neither intellect nor subtlety to any of it, and McPherson's direction is bland in the extreme, falling somewhere between theatre and television, but never rising to actual cinema.

Every scene is laboured and clumsy. From the opening card game which must have some significance given its inclusion to the climax which features a man projectile vomiting on a lecture theatre full of students to the ending which tries to nonchalantly pass off its failure to coherently articulate a point of view as deliberate irresolution, it is amateurish and heavy-handed. Characters do not so much communicate as make speeches, which may be the point, but is more suitable for the kind of theatrical monologue which made McPherson famous on the Irish stage not all that long ago. Though the performances are earnest enough, the camera simply blocks out the action. McPherson never seems to realise that cinema itself offered a superb opportunity to really delve into those awkward spaces between spoken conversations which he seems to think are profoundly expressive. It is extremely theatrical yet without the discipline of a full-fledged theatrical production. McPherson shows no grasp whatsoever of the cinema as a means of communication in itself and no understanding of how this could have afforded him the opportunity to do so much more with the material.

The film labours the human ability to entertain contradiction in the most mundane manner by telling tales of deception and deceit in which we are asked to feel sympathy for the deceivers. Each of the stories raises questions of the schism between word and action by illustrating the distance between what is said and what is seen. Yet he is not cineaste enough to use the tools provided by the great surrealist directors to render such themes visually, nor has he wit enough to realise that the stories themselves are not enough on their own to hold attention. Even American Beauty was able to get away with having cardboard characters because of deft direction, and though McPherson may be attempting to locate his film somewhere along a cinematic continuum which includes the tradition of low-key, introspective dramas which emerge from Europe from time to time, he's no Krzysztof Kieslowski either (but you knew that already too, right?): Three Colours: Red it is not.

A game cast including MacDonald (I Went Down), Cox (Hidden Agenda), Birthistle (Drinking Crude, Borstal Boy), Mullen (Blessed Fruit), and Gleeson (The General, Sweety Barrett) does its best with the material. Kinlan is given the most thanklessly underdeveloped role as the family's younger son and cannot eventually bear the weight of dramatic, thematic, and narrative weight placed upon the poorly-judged finale in which he features, but that is not his fault. As an acting exercise, the film provides each of actors enough room to make an impression (Gleeson, as ever, is a standout in a slightly smaller supporting role), though the characters they are playing are not always either believable or as intriguing as seems to have been hoped. It all eventually amounts to very little and its best scene is the one genuinely random moment of action in it (where Kinlan is beaten up outside a night club by local thugs). The rest seems to be desperate to create the impression that these are 'everyday' stories which have been hand-crafted to reveal the depths of meaning and human truth. But really this is just a series of contrived set pieces which fail to connect and blunder awkwardly through scene after predictable scene until the film comes to a welcome end. Audiences will be rightly bored and hopefully fail to generate the kind of box-office returns which made I Went Down the reason why this film was made at all. Avoid.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.