In the Beginning
Jeff Reichert on Danny Boy
If Neil Jordan and Steven Spielberg can be argued as our two most visible “commercial” filmmakers who place questions of spirituality directly at the center of their work, what is it (if we can set aside the obvious differences in sensibility and available means of production) that separates their perspectives and finds one continually resonating with audiences while the other can release a kinetic, candy-colored fantasy like Breakfast on Pluto or as seemingly a commercial film as The Good Thief only to meet indifference in theaters? On the one hand, setting aside the respective fundamental differences is a heady task given that we’re dealing on the one hand with perhaps the most commercially successful filmmaker in history, but wasn’t there a moment, just after The Crying Game, and with the announcement of his attachment to Interview with the Vampire, where it looked like Jordan might steer in a similar direction? Of course, his two intentionally “big” pictures, Vampire and Michael Collins, for all their stiffness, are certainly nothing less than his own, but since his 1997 masterpiece The Butcher Boy, his films have been smaller in scale, more idiosyncratic and better able to respond directly to his own curious muse—they’re the kinds of works you’d expect from the filmmaker of The Company of Wolves and The Crying Game, rather than The Crying Game and Michael Collins. Two wildly different couplings, yet neither perhaps less “Jordan” in the end. Each of his recent films (even In Dreams) bespeaks of a visual imagination no less rich or necessarily accessible than Spielberg’s, so why is it that when Neil Jordan’s the Catholic, Spielberg’s perhaps the more catholic filmmaker of the pair?
Factoring in Jordan’s ongoing—sometimes stubbornly out of place, as in the climax of Mona Lisa—investigation into the intersections of identity, sexuality, and gender against Spielberg’s relative lack of the same provides a ready but oversimplified answer. The Crying Game marked probably the first time most of its audience had seen a penis on-screen in a sexual context, yet its astounding success suggests either the punditry’s inability to correctly peg the American palate, or the Weinsteins’ marketing genius, probably more than a little of both. Spielberg’s cinema is certainly more chaste, but the crucial difference between the two centers less around carnality than in how both filmmakers handle their spiritual inquests, which range across their careers—from Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Mona Lisa to War of the Worlds and The End of the Affair—and how this fundamentally affects their work’s reception. While Spielberg’s project seems based around practices of elevation, Jordan seems most interested in confusion, or perhaps to use a more appropriate metaphor: it’s the difference between transubstantiation vs. consubstantiation.
Spielberg brings the force of his technique to bear on the oft-quotidian, imbuing his characters and situations with the whiff of the spiritual. So much of this done by his now trademark use of pregnant offscreen spaces—how much of his cinema is populated by glances at things that the audience cannot see? Jordan’s films find their narratives battling for supremacy with a metaphorical plane, collapsing categories, making it near impossible to separate the spirit from the secular. In some ways, two unlikely texts, Spielberg’s Always and Jordan’s We’re No Angels, for all their respective (alleged, depending on who you ask) structural defects, prove illustrative in outlining the difference. Where Always mines a hyper-real natural world through the perspective of a ghost, rendering it a priori a film of intensely spiritual concern, We’re No Angels is a film of misapprehensions and misunderstandings—a slapstick Sturges-esque comedy where the profane and profound intermingle, often within the same shot. If Robert DeNiro reaching out for the hand of the Virgin Mary to save a drowning child, or Richard Dreyfuss bringing Holly Hunter back to life after literal baptism by fire and water, function somewhat differently in their respective conclusions, yet both feel similarly unironic, it’s because both filmmakers are so sincere and devout in their craft. Neither trans- nor consubstantiative filmmaking strikes me as better, or more accomplished (and like the differences between the religious terms, semantic when shed of proper context), but where Spielberg’s films often come with the whiff of an otherworldly, often benevolent presence, Jordan’s films resonate with an indecisiveness that’s often left unresolved.
This inability (or unwillingness) on Jordan’s part to untangle the spiritual and secular forms the central attraction of his first feature Danny Boy, originally titled in Ireland, appropriately, Angel. Minus the rich sense of color that remains a hallmark of his cinema, Danny Boy looks less like Spielberg than perhaps one of his American antitheses: Jim Jarmusch. Marked by oblique, carefully composed frames, a general lack of camera movement, an aura of hipster cool, and a flirtation with genre, Danny Boy seems at first like a cross-Atlantic cousin to Stranger Than Paradise. But as the film moves along, Jordan gradually unhinges his camera, intermingling some unwieldy handheld work with austere tracking shots for a more rounded mix that, while not as immediately striking (or laudable) as Jarmusch’s rigor, has blossomed over the course of his career into an engrossing, if at times invisible, style. Again, the biggest difference between the two filmmakers lies in their spiritual concerns: where Jarmusch’s characters look off into the void (well, Lake Erie) and find nothing, the signals from Danny Boy are decidedly more complex.
In his feature-film debut, Stephen Rea stars as Danny, saxophone player in an itinerant band playing small gigs in and around Northern Ireland’s County Armagh, the seat of the Church of Ireland and often considered the island’s spiritual center. Appropriately, the film opens with a lonely sax bleating over a shot of the deserted parking lot of the run-down Dreamland Ballroom. The first cut reveals the music’s source: Danny warming up his tenor in the back of the tour van, while Annie (Veronica Quilligan), a young deaf girl, watches admiringly. Talkative and roguish, Danny’s a typically cocksure musician, and smelling a post-gig score, he pays the girl’s way into the show, where she moons at him from the dance floor. The band’s a ragtag bunch, not unlike a poorly dressed wedding band, fronted by Dee (Honor Heffernan) that mixes The Cars and Blondie with early Eighties lite-cheese (original songs by Paddy Meegan), wholly a product of its time and the dancehall for-hire scene to which it caters. After the gig, Annie leads Danny into the neighboring field for the expected tryst, and the two pause near the tinkling bells of a wishing tree before crawling into a concrete tube bathed in the red glare (a favorite of Jordan’s) of the ballroom’s neons, and it’s here where the film first consubstantiates. As Danny begins to drowse in the scarlet light, a ghostly soprano wails from afar. Cars pull up to the Dreamland, bearing armed men who murder Danny’s manager and Annie after the assassins notice her watching from the darkness. The dancehall explodes, wounding Danny, who cradles the girl’s body until the fire dies, and the police arrive in the morning.
He next awakens in the stark whiteness of a hospital, arm bandaged, and watched closely by Inspectors Bloom (Ray McAnally) and Bonner (Donal McCann). Bloom’s first comment immediately signals the confusion that marks the rest of the film: “It’s so quiet out there it could almost be…paradise.” “Aren’t you going to ask me questions? You’re supposed to ask me questions,” replies Danny, confused and not yet fully aware that his film has passed into another plane. Wracked by images from that night, Danny hones in on a half-remembered glimpse of one of the assassin’s orthopedic shoes, and belligerently queries hotel staff with similar footwear. His injury only minor, he’s released quickly from the hospital to nervously rejoin the band, stalking into rehearsal after what seems a few week’s absence “like a ghost,” frightening Dee as she sings, “You’re not the same anymore.” His playing is tentative, still shaken from the violence.
Dee’s song hits perhaps a little too squarely on the nose of things—the murders have left Danny a changed man. Walking down the street, he spies an orthopedic shoe in a store window, a chance encounter which leads him on a grisly quest that neatly parallels the small tour his band seems to be undertaking simultaneously. Haunted and obsessed, he assumes the role of an accidental avenging angel, hunting down the killers (who turn out to be members of the IRA), one by one, with remarkably little precision and agency on his part, carrying a submachine gun gleaned from his first murder in his soprano sax case. Each kill somehow emboldens his playing yet moves him further into the realm of the metaphysical, a transformation marked largely by Rea’s increasingly distant performance and haunted delivery. “There’s someone watching over you, I can feel it,” declares Dee. And there seems to be, as the coincidences that lead him to each of his prey are so clean and regularly paced that the narrative moves at a brisk clip, each murder punctuated by musical performances until the film comes completely unhinged towards the end. Yet Danny Boy’s never in too much of a hurry to linger for a bit on an interesting image: a neon palm tree in a hotel lobby, silhouetted figure lit by a bonfire on a beach, a marching band playing to no one (except the Lord) in a parking lot, Rea wandering the moor alone in a shiny pink suit—all find Neil Jordan already working towards the dangerous sensualism that pushed a film like In Dreams over the edge into parody while rendering The End of the Affair sublime.
Danny’s an unlikely killer: He shoots the second assassin only by accident and then admonishes the corpse for the move towards a handkerchief that forced him to pull the trigger, and he unwisely kills his third target while the man speeds them both down a highway, sending the car careening off the road. As the narrative continues, he takes up the relationship with Dee foreshadowed near the opening, coming nearly back to life in her presence, but the pull of his quest and its weighty spiritual and moral dimensions, perhaps a little overdetermined by Jordan’s heavy dialogue, threatens to upend him and the film. “Tell me what a sin is,” Danny demands of Dee pre-coitus in a hotel. Inspector Bloom frames the initial murders in the context of the “deepness of evil,” and as Danny gradually grows more opaque, each line of dialogue comes bearing ever more portent. “I want you to remember for me,” he orders his second target; “Be careful for those hands, Danny,” Bloom advises him; “What is this place?” Danny asks when faced with the sterile whites of a morgue; Danny again, “It’s like a nothing you can feel, and it gets worse”—all fascinating, multivalent lines, but also at times clunky in the context of a narrative that feels like it wants to be a little leaner. Continual discussions of dreams and memory only heighten the haziness as the tour gradually moves from the city into more pastoral venues, making an especially odd stop at a mental hospital, where Jordan uses jump cuts to create the impression that Danny’s sax has the ability to conjure the inmates like zombies from Night of the Living Dead. Are these revenge murders rendering him a sinner, a saint, or both?
Given Jordan’s insistence on locating his films, and Danny Boy in particular, within a highly specific Irish milieu (here, the quest of an avenging angel placed in Ireland’s spiritual seat, the Jewish inspector shares a namesake with the most famous Irish-semite, the title), it stands to reason that the trajectory of the band’s stops might provide an even richer experience to those more acquainted with the physical geography. I like this about Jordan, the way he’ll sneak details into even the most anonymous of his films that tie them to his Irish nationalism and his other films (the Plunkette castle in his career nadir High Spirits derives its name from an early 20th Century revolutionary who worked with Michael Collins). But it’s perhaps an even more peripheral detail of Danny Boy that most clearly announces Jordan’s intentions. Dee keeps a postcard of Monica Vitti (who she looks not unlike) in L’avventura with her, and if not for Jordan’s more concrete interest in narrative, we could argue that Danny’s lost Annie and the subsequent quest mirrors the search for the disappeared Anna in Antonioni’s film. Of course, the audience knows Annie to be dead, where Antonioni withholds resolution, but by undertaking the quest in spite of everything, Danny Boy enters perhaps even more complicated terrain. Who or what exactly is Danny searching for?
The finale finds Danny, unexpectedly, back near the burnt-out shell of the Dreamland, where the parking lot is now host to a young healer (wearing an incongruous, shiny blue suit not unlike the band uniforms) and his makeshift shrine. “Have you really got the power?” Danny asks him, before receiving a blessing and fainting as the ethereal soprano reappears on the soundtrack. Inspector Bonner enters the tent and walks Danny into the shell of the dancehall, whose remaining brick structural elements call to mind a decimated church (an image mirrored in Breakfast on Pluto), and where only a true miracle saves the saxophonist’s life. Bonner was the final, unknown name on the list, and Bloom’s used Danny all along to ferret him out, raising the question: Though we’ve thought Danny to be Michael up until this point, has this final turnabout rendered him Jesus? Is Inspector Bloom God, sending his son out into the world without instruction so that he might see and learn what he might? To return to Spielberg for a minute, these are similar questions posed by the analogous narrative of his Minority Report, though filtered so fully through generic conventions that there’s no room for the true confusions at the heart of Danny Boy—yet both remain exceedingly spiritually minded. Named after that most famous Irish anthem (most popular, appropriately, amongst non-Irishmen), Dee argues the song is “his.” Danny can only shrug this off: “It’s everyone’s song.” Specifically unspecific, spiritual and secular, anonymous and completely distinct, everything and nothing—Danny Boy ’s the cinema of Neil Jordan, in a nutshell.