In the wake of comments from director John Michael McDonagh on the generally poor quality of Irish films, David O'Donoghue reviews a new, unabashedly Irish movie that qualifies as a genuine triumph

A couple weeks back John Michael McDonagh (director of “The Guard”) said that Irish films were “unintelligent”. As a film fan, a cultural nationalist and someone who was enormously disappointed by McDonagh’s simpleminded “Calvary”, my blood boiled. I tried in vain to compose a suitable reply, full of vitriol and love for Irish cinema. But the words would not come. Luckily, in “Darkness on the Edge of Town”, written and directed by my fellow Kerryman Patrick Ryan, I have found the perfect response.

The film’s opening is slow and deliberate and from its outset it is Irish in the best possible way. It’s steady and admiring cinematography perfectly frames the majesty of the rural Irish landscape in a way that left me breathless. This is the scenery of North Kerry, which I know intimately, and yet somehow all these familiar sights are transformed into something exotic and transcendent through the grace of the film’s camera work.

The film’s quiet opening serves as a good complement and introduction to its protagonist, troubled young sharpshooter Cleo Callahan. Cleo, played ably by Emma Eliza Regan, sets out on a determined mission of revenge to avenge the murder of her estranged sister by an unknown assailant. She is accompanied by her childhood friend and fellow troubled troublemaker Robin O’Riley, whose hands may not be entirely clean in the bloody affairs that have absorbed their lives of late.

Of course, as even that brief synopsis reveals, the film is not a purely Irish one. Ryan pulls stylistic and thematic elements from a variety of sources including American westerns and Japanese cinema with ability, knowledge and finesse. Although I might be going out on a limb it seems to me that his influences go even further as the film’s slow burn and moments of tactile violence reminded me a great deal of the French new wave director, Melville.

But what is engaging about these exotic elements is how natural they feel. This doesn’t seem like a film that has simply clumsily transplanted cinematic elements from other cultures into an Irish setting and expected it to work. 

From the IRA-sourced gun to the surprise and glee expressed by a fresh faced young Garda at the unusual sight of a murder in rural Kerry, “Darkness” allows elements of the Western and revenge thriller genres to grow naturally from the Irish environment. By the end of the film you could be forgiven for thinking that the lone gunslinger and Mexican standoffs were tropes closer to Tarbert, Kerry than Tombstone, Kansas.

On the subject of characters, the quality of acting in “Darkness” is absolutely superb. Emma Eliza Regan as Cleo deftly contrasts quiet stoicism, grim determination and rare moments of emotional fragility to create a character whose emotional coldness reflects her difficult upbringing and whose moments of emotional volatility are made all the more bright, vibrant and touching for this. 

Brian Gleeson is a pleasure to watch as Robin’s brother Virgil. Gleeson’s intensely human and desperate performance is a touching one and he perfectly pulls off the feeling of a man fighting for air as the complexities and darkness of a situation suffocate him. 

But, for me, the revelation was Emma Willis as Robin. Her performance is exuberant and tense and she makes a wonderful foil for Cleo’s more stoic character. Her expressive face is a joy to see and her moments of childlike ecstasy are a wonderful counterpoint to her darker inner character.

The film has weak moments. One that stands out is a scene with Francis Macheath, a violent traveller suspected of murdering Cleo’s sister, where the dialogue seems somewhat overwrought and the exchanged between he and Cleo seemed to be reaching for a profundity and ferocity that isn’t quite there. 

But these brief faltering moments, only serve to emphasise the enormous, powerful strides that constitute the rest of the film’s gripping intensity. This is a film that does not run away from its Irishness while also casting itself in the same mould as a classic American thriller. Albeit one where you spot the occasional green post box in the background. 

Nor does it take refuge in its Irish charm and hope to simply be “good for an Irish film”. This is an accomplished film that uses its Irish characters and settings to thrilling effect while also borrowing from a broad range of worldly influences and aesthetics that Ryan and his crew manage to blend naturally into the Irish setting. 

Darkness on the Edge of Town will be airing in Killarney Cinema as part of the Kerry Film Festival on Friday October 10.