Sunday, 8 April 2018
Oz. The Shawshank Redemption. Maze. Scum. Undisputed. Orange Is The New Black. Cool Hand Luke. Papillion. Wentworth. Hunger. The Great Escape. Prison films & TV shows are always good. They appeal to our basic instincts. The ones that want to see blood and love a bit of tension. We love seeing broken people rise up and fight back against the system. The innocent fella plotting his escape. The political prisoner who's decided enough is enough. What we don't see much of are the stories of the normal prisoners, the people who just want to do their time and keep their head down. In recent years we've had A Prophet and Starred Up and now we have Michael Inside. A new Irish film written and directed by Frank Berry.
Michael McCrea is a young man living in West Dublin. He lives in the same house as his Grandad but they are incapable of communication. One day a friend of his asks him for a favour and soon Michael finds himself on his way to the big house. A place he is totally unprepared for.
Michael Inside is a superb film but one that will upset and anger you. It's bleak as hell and a desperate indictment of modern day Ireland showing it really is no country for young men. It's about a side of crime that rarely makes the news. The tiddlers. The people on the periphery of the drug trade that get paid the least but seem to suffer the most. Nearly always young men with little to no parental interaction or supervision who are desperate to be part of any group that will welcome them in and in they go willingly despite knowing where this road will lead them. These tiddlers end up in our jails which are cesspools of criminality and come out worse than they went in. It's a vicious circle. One telling piece of dialogue cuts to the heart of the problem with our justice system in Ireland. "Your sentence starts when ya get out." (paraphrasing but you get the point). Prison offers no rehabilitation. You wear the mark of your incarceration forever. You'll find it impossible to get a job, hard to go abroad etc so why not just fall into a life of crime full time when you have no other choice?
It's a film that will break your heart. From the opening scenes there's an underlying unease about it and that unease grows throughout the story until it leaves your guts in knots near the end. Dafhyd Flynn as Michael is excellent. He doesn't say much but you can clearly see his emotions swirling across his face. He's a slight 18 year old who already wears the scars of the drug trade on his soul. He's a criminal but not a malicious one. It's his own silliness that gets him in trouble. He can't communicate with his grandad who he lives with and makes bad choices for friendship to fill the hole inside him. He's like so many of us Irish men, going about with that blip in our psyche that stops us from expressing ourselves. He could be any young man walking down the street. He could be your son, your younger brother.
It's a suffocatingly tense piece of film-making. It's a prison film that thankfully mostly avoids the cliche's of prison films. It's brutal in places but never gratuitous. The threat of violence hovers over every scene both inside and outside the prison. Once inside the one piece of advice Michael actually acknowledges from his Grandad (Lalor Roddy, great) gets him a vicious beating and it's here Michael meets David (Moe Dunford, brilliantly brooding and intense and fast becoming one of our best actors). During their first interaction you hope David will be like Red from Shawshank and take Michael under his wing. But real life is a cruel and mean place.
It's not perfect. Films rarely are but it's good points far outshine it's very few bad ones. One relationship feels unearned and kind of comes out of nowhere. It's something that could have done with a wee bit more fleshing out but it's a small moment. It all sounds fierce harsh though doesn't it. Well that's the point. It's less dramatic than last years Cardboard Gangsters but it's point is the same. Crime doesn't pay. There are no winners here. Beware. It's the kind of film that will worm it's way into your head. It's an old tale but because it's set in places we know with people who's accents we recognise it strikes a chord. We empathise with Michael and despite his actions we care what happens him. Any film that can make you feel for it's characters is a success in my book. I can't wait to see what director Frank Berry does next.
Go see this. It won't cheer you up but you'll leave your cinema thinking. And as always it feels deadly to support an Irish movie.