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Savage

Ruth Barton
Trinity College Dublin

Creative Commons 4.0 by Ruth Barton. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

Dir: Brendan Muldowney

Prod: Conor Barry

Cast: Darren Healy, Nora-Jane Noone

In 1999 Paul Tickell directed the low-budget youth drama, Crush Proof, about a gang of disadvantaged kids whose identity is defined by their (literal) peripherality from the mainstream of urban, cosmopolitan Dublin. Crush Proof opens with the release from prison of Neal (Darren Healy) and his subsequent odyssey from the outskirts to the inner city, starting with his failed attempt to gain access to his child and continuing on through his reunion with his equally marginalised friends and his own descent into violent acts of criminality. If it weren’t for its determined reliance on stereotyping, particularly of women, and its focus on Healy’s intense performance, the film’s kitchen sink realist aesthetic might have provided the viewer with a laudable insight into contemporary social problems and issues of class-based masculinity. Instead it demonstrated how John Hill’s critique of British social realism of the 1960s – that it sidelined women and celebrated the singularity of its male protagonist – remains as applicable to Irish cinema today as it is to the works of Lindsay Anderson and his colleagues of fifty years ago.

The immediate link between Crush Proof and Brendan Muldowney’s Savage is the return of Darren Healy, once again playing the lead. Healy is a compelling screen presence and his roles on film have drawn on his own real-life experience. He has long struggled with problems of addiction and a tendency towards acts of violence when under the influence of drugs. When he took the lead in Savage, for instance, he had recently completed a suspended prison sentence for assault. After his trial it was revealed that Healy already held eight previous convictions for public order offences.

It comes as some surprise, therefore, to find Healy taking the role of a press photographer, Paul Graynor, who makes his living from pictures of crime scenes. With his fine dark hair falling over his face, over-sized glasses, and his slight physique, Graynor is marked out as ‘arty’, verging on effeminate. Thus, the opening sequence is filmed as a montage of violence, soon revealed to be two winos in a fight. The film cuts between them and Graynor as he first observes and then photographs the two men. Following this we see him snapping a convicted man leaving the courts in a paddy wagon, climbing onto the vehicle to gain a better shot. This impression of artiness is supported by interior shots of his apartment, a glossy, inner-city bachelor pad, something of a haven from the city streets that echo with sirens and drunken shouting. A series of exchanges establishes the film’s ideological dynamic – much of the crime Paul witnesses goes under-reported and inadequately punished by the courts. No one really cares.

Coming home one evening from a date with the nurse, Michelle (Nora-Jane Noone), who cares for Graynor’s permanently hospitalised father, the photographer is assaulted by a gang of youths; a tightly-edited, intense sequence that mirrors the opening montage with fragmented images of Graynor as he is pinned to the wall and threatened with a knife. The demented chorus of threats from the gang as they urge themselves on, together with Graynor’s feeble protests, fuse together in an opera of violence that culminates in the victim’s castration. The remainder of the film is part revenge narrative, part therapeutic journey as Graynor seeks to understand and respond to the feelings of impotence he experiences in the wake of the attack.

In interview, Muldowney has spoken of the influences on his film, notably reports of the New York subway vigilante, Bernard Goetz, whose own experience of being mugged led him to ride the subway with a firearm looking for trouble, and also, closer to home, the case of the West of Ireland farmer who, after numerous incitements, eventually took a gun to trespassers on his land.1  An artistic influence, not surprisingly, is Scorsese, and the look of Dublin, all dark, rain-soaked streets, is indebted to that director’s work.  ((For a detailed discussion of Savage’s aesthetic, with a particular emphasis on the film’s use of sound, see Maria O’Brien, “Savage Sounds” in Tony Tracy (ed.), ‘Irish Film and Television 2009: The Year in Review’, Estudios Irlandeses, 5, (2009) 253-5.))

What Muldowney lacked, in comparison even with early Scorsese, was a budget; the film was reputed to have been made for around €300,000. With such limited resources, the decision seems to have been taken to hang the film around Healy’s performance. None of the other characters, from Graynor’s girlfriend, Michelle (a thankless role for the talented Nora-Jane Noone), to his bedridden father (John O’Leary), a man who apparently has a sinister past (possibly the reason for his son’s fear of violence?), to the concerned-but-useless psychiatrist, Dr Cusack (Cathy Belton) and the Polish body builder who supplies Graynor with steroids, amounts to anything more than a sketchy stereotype.

We follow Graynor as he embarks on a process of physical and psychological recuperation. The first stage is to purchase a personal alarm, then to shave his head, and then to proceed through self-defence lessons to full-on revenge. Throughout the process, Healy emerges from his chrysalis, transforming himself from his ‘useless’ effeminacy into an active, but demented alter-ego of savage masculinity; the film’s chapter titles keep pace with his transformation, with ‘ANGER’ replacing ‘FEAR’. The end of the film returns to a previously unexplained opening image of the naked, reborn man slathered in blood, which we now know is a consequence of his misplaced revenge on his attackers.

It’s hard to critique Savage for its focus on male victimhood, a condition with which many will empathise. However, its outcome seems to me strangely at odds with what appears to be its intent. Having prevailed upon its audience to accept the argument that the media’s, and by extension, society’s response to male-on-male violence is inadequate, the film then presents a cross section of authority figures who offer Graynor the best of attention. The doctor (Peter Gaynor) may stumble over the word ‘castration’ when he is offering his patient guidance on hormone therapy but he is evidently greatly in sympathy with Graynor’s plight; similarly, the police, the nursing staff, the martial arts coach and even the slightly dim therapist all evidently have Graynor’s best care at heart. In a more conventional melodrama, the victim would be misunderstood, here Graynor doesn’t lack for understanding. Despite the film’s rhetoric, then, the problem doesn’t lie with the hegemonic order. The young delinquents who carry out the attack are, in common with all the ancillary characters, pencil sketches. With their white hoodies and tracksuit bottoms, their belligerence is understood as part of the cityscape, as always already there, as unalterable. Between these two sides of the social order, then, comes Graynor. Throughout the course of the film, we only learn a few scattered facts about him: he is effeminate, his father was once a bad man, he is shy with women. That he should be effeminate was always central to the film’s conception, as its director has noted:

In the original script Paul worked in a library … He was like a 30yr old virgin who worked in a library and Nora-Jane’s character was a much older woman. Over the years, with script editing, it changed, so as to make it more believable. The character now is still a bit of a hangover from the old script where Paul is a little bit shy at the start when he shouldn’t have been. I should have straightened that out before we went into it, but thankfully it’s not a huge problem.2

Actually, I think this is a huge problem. For a start, vicious assaults are not always carried out on effeminate men; oddly, hooligans prefer more obviously ‘macho’ types. Then, there is the suggestion that the 30 yr old virgin, now press photographer, might not be man enough to defend himself, an invidious association if there ever was one. Once Graynor commences his voyage into fully-fledged male, hysterical violence, is he then not working through the deficiencies suggested by his ‘virgin’ status? For instance, he can only finally make love to Michelle after he has replaced his effeminate look with a shaven head. Isn’t he also being aligned with the position of (female) rape victim with which we are familiar from other cinematic narratives? He isn’t raped, but his violation is comparable, and his ensuing actions can be seen as analogous to that of the rape-revenge drama. Finally, there is the casting of Darren Healy. Anyone with any familiarity either with his on-screen roles or his off-screen identity will know that beneath the performance of effeminacy lies a core of violence. When the real Darren Healy finally breaks forth, the film ties itself up in knots as it rushes to disassociate itself from the brutality it has unleashed. In keeping with the melodrama which this production essentially is, Savageends in an outpouring of uncontainable excess. Just as, aesthetically, it veers between realism and expressionism, so narratively Muldowney’s feature is torn between discussing the hegemonic order’s unduly light treatment of acts of violent criminality and depicting this crime as the inevitable outcome of the chaotic city, where only those who can defend themselves survive. At the same time, it cannot bring itself to endorse the kind of vigilante justice that we might expect from a comparable Hollywood product.

The increasing ease of making low-budget cinema renders this a more accomplished film in certain ways than Crush Proof, but it is the casting of Healy that at once makes both watchable (if barely) and unworkable. Both films reflect a worthy intention to explore issues of criminality and social breakdown. Neither manages to produce more than a character study. In each case, the actor’s charismatic presence overwhelms the films’ flimsily constructed storylines. The focus on Healy in each feature is facilitated by the carelessness with which the supporting roles are written so that his place within a network of relationships is never credible. Because of Healy’s charisma, we become so caught up in his personal identity issues that the exploration of social concerns becomes irrelevant; here is someone who is evidently singular not representative. More than that, the camera in each case is so enamoured of its subject that the films drift close to a celebration of male physicality and violence, a situation from which they then rush to extricate themselves in their chaotic denouements. We may guess that Muldowney was familiar with Crush Proof and may even have intended this film to reference the earlier work. Over ten years have lapsed between the release of one film and the other but it is hard to argue that the technological evolution that facilitated the glossier look of Savagewas matched by any similar evolution in ideological sophistication.

  1. Mark Linehan, ‘Interview with Savage director Brendan Muldowney’, entertainment.ie, http://entertainment.ie/Movie/feature/Interview-with-Savage-director-Brendan-Muldowney/2/863.htm [accessed: 10 February 2010]. []
  2. Aileen Moone, ‘Interview: Brendan Muldowney on “Savage”’, IFTN, 14 September 2010. http://www.iftn.ie/news/?act1=record&aid=73&rid=4283356&tpl=archnews&only=1 [accessed: 7 February 2011] []

Works Cited

Hill, John. 1986. Sex, Class and Realism: British Cinema 1956-1963. London: British Film Institute.