Revenge is probably one of the most common dramatic engines of all time, in all its varied forms. As such, it would seem like there couldn’t be any new stories to tell about revenge no new ideas to contribute to the conversation.
And yet, year after year, season after season, revenge is a subject that filmmakers return to, and it’s sort of amazing how it continues to yield results, both dramatically and thematically. Oliver Hirschbiegel, whose movie “Downfall” gave birth to that Hitler YouTube meme that keeps getting recycled (the joke getting thinner every time), was damn near swallowed by Hollywood when he made “The Invasion” with Nicole Kidman. Still, his earlier work like “Downfall” or “Das Experiment” proved he was a filmmaker of substance, and I’m glad to see he didn’t let himself get sidelined very long.
“Five Minutes Of Heaven” is based on real people and a real situation, but it uses the facts as a jumping-off point in pursuit of (hopefully) a larger truth. It’s an intriguing approach, and the end result is sincere, if a little flat. The most interesting thing about the film is the way it deals with revenge as a cancer, eating away at anyone infected with it. When someone does you a wrong as a result of some personal conflict, it’s easy to fantasize about doing it back to them, and in some cases, that fantasy becomes reality. But when you’re the victim of a stupid, random, pointless act of terrorism, revenge becomes political as well as personal, and things get complicated.
As a young man, Alistair (Liam Neeson) was a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force, passionate to the point of violence about “the Irish troubles.” Now, decades later, he travels the world speaking about reconciliation and forgiveness. He’s obviously trying to undo much of what he did as a youth, but there are some things that no amount of good work can undo. And for Joe (James Nesbitt), it doesn’t matter what Alistair does now or what he says or who he helps: Alistair will always be the man who killed Joe’s older brother.
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Here’s the thing: there’s a real Alistair. And there’s a real Joe. And Alistair really did gun down Joe’s older brother when they were both much younger. Both men spent time working with screenwriter Guy Hibbert on the script, so there’s a great authenticity to the stuff set in the ’70s. The shooting was stupid, a warning over Catholics taking shipyard jobs from Protestants, and it’s the thing that Alistair has spent the rest of his life trying to recover from. He knows what he did was wrong, and he seems to think he can pay back the debt he’s incurred, although the one person he desperately needs to apologize to is the person he’s spent the past few decades avoiding: Joe. And Joe’s a wreck because he witnessed the shooting. Dealing with those memories has left him an emotional shell, barely functional. He’s learned to hate Alistair, and not just in a reactionary way. He detests what Alistair does for a living, detests this new name he’s built for himself, and he resents the man’s success after having taken away so much from others.
The film’s digression from reality comes when Alistair and Joe are contacted about reuniting on a talk show, where they will finally have their reconciliation live on the air. For Alistair, this represents a chane to take all of his experience, all of his training, and finally confront the man whose life he ruined. For Joe, it’s a little more simple. He’s going to use the encounter to shoot and kill Alistair. That’s the “five minutes of heaven” the title refers to, and it’s the big question of the film. Will Joe do it? And if he does, is he wrong? What measure of solace is he allowed?
The TV interviewer, played by Anamaria Marinca (so amazing in “4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days”), knows there are potential fireworks here, but she has no idea what she’s asking of these two men emotionally. They almost have to hold Joe’s hand to get him on the set, because no matter how badly he wants to hurt Alistair, part of him is still the same scared little boy who watched this boogeyman gun down his brother. Just as the desire for revenge has been eating him alive, little by little, so has the fear that has been part of his life the entire time. And while “Five Minutes Of Heaven” falls down a bit near the end when it comes to resolving the situation it sets up, much of what it does before that point is very smart, and very sincere. It almost plays like a stage production, with Hirschbiegel taking a very subdued visual approach to things. Both Nesbitt and Neeson do very strong work in the film, and even if the script is a little undercooked, there’s still plenty of meat for them to dig into as performers.
IFC Films is platforming the film right now, so keep your eyes open for it.
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