Monday, March 26, 2007

FILM: "The Wind That Shakes the Barley"

Is there a worse thing than countryman killing countryman? Yes: brother killing brother. Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes the Barley, a period piece about the creation of the IRA, encompasses all that and goes one step further with his brutally sincere and unflinching camera: he makes us understand the dire necessity that calls for such reckless killing.

In many ways, this is the first film I've seen that justifies terrorism, and Paul Laverty's script deserves recognition for its moral balancing act. Loach supports Laverty by shooting the film with subtle grays, taking long shots of fog-swept marches, and setting up delicate ambushes on the barley-covered roads, and showing us the beauty of Irish culture only in the context or aftermath of bloody British savagery (the film's title song is delivered at a funeral). The Wind That Shakes the Barley may cheat occasionally by only showing the worst of one side, but it doesn't exactly show us the best of the Irish either: the organized killings often look like scenes from gangster flicks, complete with hidden weapons and swift vengeance. But no matter how you frame some of these shots, they're bound to provoke gut responses: it hurts to watch a thuggish group of policemen deliberately beat a man to death in front of his mother (especially when the crime is insignificant).

It's no great stretch to see Damien turn away from his medical aspirations in the light of such things, and to join in with the men he grew up with (especially when one's his brother, Teddy). After some solemn training, it's a pleasure to watch them turn the tables on the police; when their violence lands them in jail, we pray for them to escape (that they are tortured is further provocation); when they escape and kill the traitor, it's a necessity, not a crime.

If only The Wind That Shakes the Barley were one-dimensional; if only it weren't such a struggle for Damien to fire his gun; if only we didn't have to watch the wind taken out of his barley-like frame as the curses of the traitor's family run through his mind. But Loach is too savvy a director for such agenda-driven comfort: while the film's escalation seems logical and necessary, each step forward feels as if it's been ripped from the someone's heart. We don't want to see Damien splinter away from Teddy, but we agree with both of them, and that's what makes the onset of Irish-against-Irish revolution so tragic.

As Damien, Cillian Murphy is perfect. His fragile features (as in Red Eye) make him far more innocent than he is even as his cold blue eyes give him steely resolve. Padraic Delaney, who plays his brother, is more of a brute: gruff, huge, and unflinching. But just as Murphy plays against type to exploit our emotions, so does Delaney. He doesn't sag with the repercussion of his actions, he implodes, which is the very essence of heartbreaking cinema.

These quiet moments are The Wind That Shakes the Barley: the silence shared between brothers who will not back down from their beliefs, or the unspoken rage of our heroic rebels as they helplessly watch their innocent cousins pay the price for their actions. A grandmother, whose house has just been burnt down, refusing to leave the land she was born on: her tottering body filled with a grim determination to stay in the chicken coop, even if that means cleaning out the corpses already stored there.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley is a brutally sincere film filled with haunting images and the sorrowful inevitability of the past. The methodical pacing illustrates why neither side can back down (without seeming like a history lesson) and the raw emotions of these actors ripple through the scenes like the light wind through that even lighter barley.

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