This was the film where Mickey Rourke played an IRA terrorist, haunted by an explosion gone awry, who now wants out of the terror business – but oh, it won’t be that easy, will he? There is just one more job for him to complete, and then he will be granted a Visa and a passage to America, and a whole new life. He is tormented, he is torn – but what can he do??
This was also the film that Rourke famously disowned after it came out, saying he had wanted to make a serious movie about “the Troubles” and the director had fucked it all up. Way to make friends, Mickey. But Rourke was never in this thing to make friends. He might be NOW, but that’s because he has been deeply chastened and punished by the business that once celebrated him so highly. At the time of Prayer for the Dying, he was at the top of his game. The movie flopped (not a surprise) and Rourke went off on the powers that be. You can almost hear all of the doors shut on him.
So. Onto business.
— The first shot of the film is of rolling green fields with a lonely grey road snaking through. Then comes a title, and it says: NORTHERN IRELAND. Now, look. That would be like showing a scene of autumn leaves and putting the words NEW ENGLAND up on the screen. Or showing a humid scene of vines twining around trees by a river and putting the words THE SOUTH on the screen. Can you please be more specific? Northern Ireland is a big place. Is it Belfast? Derry? Or – if you don’t want to nail it down to a specific town, could you at least choose a county?? There are six counties. Choose one. I beg you. NEW ENGLAND is a big place, you can’t just show a road and some trees and say it’s NEW ENGLAND, you have to say MASSACHUSETTS (at least! although I’m still not happy with that) – or RHODE ISLAND … So when I see that it takes place in NORTHERN IRELAND, a place that covers almost 5,500 square miles, I am suspicious. NORTHERN IRELAND is not real in Prayer For the Dying. It’s not a real place with distinguishing characteristics like any large region. It’s a symbol, it’s a code for the ignorant American audience who will nod sagely and say to each other, “Yes, this takes place in NORTHERN IRELAND … there’s a war going on there, you know.”
— Mickey Rourke’s hair is not red. He should not have dyed his hair. Plenty of Irish people have brown hair. Go with that. The dye job is distracting. It looks like he didn’t rinse properly. And believe me, I know from red hair.
— What the hell was going on with Bob Hoskin’s character? He does a fine acting job but his character was merely a cog in the creaky plot, with no inner life (except what Hoskins brought to it), no reality – and the dilemma he finds himself in is totally phony and set up by the filmmakers as another code, a symbol … and then, randomly, in one scene – he beats the shit out of this one guy. Now it has been set up that he was in the army, and he’s no pacifist priest. The priests in NORTHERN IRELAND are, of course, another breed altogether – more along the lines of Karl Malden in On the Waterfront than a beatific smiling man hearing confession in the light of Jesus. These guys are in the muck, they are political, they take sides. So that’s fine. But out of nowhere, Bob Hoskins starts whaling on this one guy with a garbage can cover and – I’m not sure – but it seems like he keeps going until he kills the guy. Bob Hoskins has not been set up as a loose cannon. He obviously has a sense of indignation and a fierce sense of protection towards his church – but … If you can see that one more blow with the garbage can will clearly KILL a man, wouldn’t you stop? He does not. But … it makes no sense in light of what we know about the guy, and then – even more ludicrous – it is never referenced again. Will charges be brought up? Is he wanted for murder? The movie drops the plot like a hot potato and I wonder if there was more that was cut – stuff that would, you know, make that moment make sense!! It also didn’t horrify me, or shock me, or make me think deep thoughts like, “My God, the violence we all have in us.” No, it made me go, “What the hell was that moment? That was so fake.”
— Alan Bates plays a sneering villain, an undertaker – who is so ruthless he will have his men stab a traitor through the hand with a screwdriver, and smirk to himself as he hears the scream. I don’t know. I have friends in Northern Ireland. I know people who are actually affected by events there. There aren’t smirking chortling villains. There are some bad and violent dudes of course – but to turn the adversary into a cartoon villain really does the entire situation a disservice. Mickey Rourke, the terrorist, gets to be conflicted and haunted and disgusted. That’s good. It’s the story of his character and his journey. But in a movie such as this – that is supposedly not just a thriller with “bad guys” – having a villain like Bates just makes the whole thing seem dumb.
— And so I realize very early on: Oh. This actually isn’t about NORTHERN IRELAND … this has nothing to do with The Troubles. This isn’t Cal or Some Mother’s Son or Name of the Father. This is a stupid Hollywood thriller using the Troubles as its bid to be taken more seriously – and that kind of cynicism I can’t abide. I remember laughing once with Mitchell about that movie Swing Time, about the jitterbug dance club in Nazi Germany. I hadn’t seen it yet. Mitchell has a big problem with movies that use the Holocaust as a plot point, a shorthand … Like: no. Don’t do that. It’s too big a world event, it needs to be the center of the movie or don’t use it. Mitchell was laughing about Swing Time and he said, “It’s basically a heartwarming story about a bunch of German kids who manage to have some fun during the Holocaust.” hahahahaha Anyway, this is what I get from Prayer for the Dying. By the final confrontation, which involves a leering ferris wheel, a weeping blind girl, an empty elevator, and an actual countdown until the bomb goes off, I was so over the whole thing. I had given up, obviously – and had issues from the first moment (NORTHERN IRELAND) – but I did hope that there would be some dealing with the issues of Northern Ireland, but nope, it’s just a starkly drawn stupid thriller all building up to the big “standoff” at the end. But … but … this is The Troubles, people … This is an actual real thing happening, with tragic consequences to actual people … don’t make it a sideline. And if you’re going to make Rourke a terrorist with a conscience, then really deal with that. Really do it. Don’t give him a couple of lines like, “I can’t sleep at night” or “I hear the screams of children in my dreams” and expect that I will just accept that!!
— There’s a moment when Alan Bates, for no apparent reason whatsoever, shows Mickey Rourke how to cremate someone. What do you want to bet that that information will come in useful later in the film??? Ludicrous.
— The blind organ player, Bob Hoskins’ niece, is a bit much. She’s a lamb for the slaughter. I think making her blind was a bit overkill. Again, it seemed like overheated script doctors cooking all of this up. (I know it was based on a novel, but that’s neither here nor there.)
— What the hell was going on with the tiny character Siobhan? She’s barely in the film, but she has a moment late in the film – and she has had all of 2 lines (I am not exaggerating) up to that point, and suddenly she does something that totally tips the movie off-balance. Again, maybe she had a larger storyline that was cut – she did seem a bit “too much” with the little she had to do in the film … and I found myself thinking: what the hell is her deal? Why is she scowling? What’s she got in this thing? What’s her angle? Then, BOOM, she shoots someone through the head, but again, I was more caught up in: what the hell is going on? You need to set up a moment like that. An audience needs a payoff. If you’re going to have a tiny character who has 2 lines shoot her own husband through the head, you need to give me a little somethin’ somethin’ to make that moment horrifying. Same as Bob Hoskins killing a man in an alley. What? Where did that come from? I’m not saying you have to spell things out, or pander. We’re talking about character development here, the actual hard work that should have gone on before the cameras started rolling. There is no character development in this film. Any character development that was done was done on the actors’ own time – and Mickey Rourke, Bob Hoskins and Sammi Davis (as the blind girl) all create real and believable characters – who act and behave between the lines … which is essential because this is the kind of movie that IS its plot.
— One of my biggest pet peeves about any movie is if it feels like it is only its plot. So boring. I can see the ending a mile away.
NOT SO LUDICROUS THINGS
— I have read criticism of Mickey Rourke’s accent. I totally disagree. “His Irish accent is not good …” is the general consensus. I think this comes about because the idea we have of a “typical” Irish accent is the southern Irish accent, with its mellifluous lilt and downward-slant on the ending of the line. Now you get different variations in different areas and there are parts in Galway where I almost can’t understand what people are saying the accent is so thick. And Dublin has a harder edge than the softer Southern accent – a little bit more hardscrabble, a little bit rougher and clipped … but all of that is recognizably Southern Irish accents. Northern Ireland is completely different, and I think Mickey Rourke nailed it. It is as good as it needs to be. The accent is not a fetish, he doesn’t make it precious – but to me it sounds very much like a Belfast-area accent – which is very very different from what you hear in the South. In the South, the inflection at the end of a sentence goes down. If you know an Irish person from the South of Ireland, just think about it, and you’ll see it’s true. It goes down. In the North, the inflection goes up, and kind of hovers there at the end of the sentences – it’s like the voice bobs up a notch, and trembles there, staying on the same pitch or higher. It’s a subtle difference, I guess, but it’s really night and day and when you are in Ireland it is immediately apparent who is from “the South” and who is from “the North”. You would never mistake the accents for each other. Mickey Rourke is doing a solid Northern Irish accent – with the kind of coiled sound in the vowels – the dropping off of “th” (listen to how he says “Father” – it’s almost like “Fa-her”) – what else … and his voice hovers at the end of a sentence, bobbing on the same pitch or higher as what came before. In the South, you float your voice down, in the North you lob your voice up. Totally opposite sound. And so I am here to defend Mickey Rourke’s accent from the naysayers who do not know what they are talking about. They have one concept of Irish accents in their heads, and his doesn’t “sound like that”. Well, like I mentioned earlier, Ireland is a big place – and North is North and South is South and never the twain shall meet, and Rourke’s accent is solidly in the North. Very different sound, but Irish nonetheless. I think he did a great job.
— Despite the silliness of the NORTHERN IRELAND title, the opening scene is the masterpiece of the film. It is truly awful, and filmed in a way where you can see the horror unfolding from a distance and you can feel the helplessness of the situation, that something bad is going to happen you cannot do anything about it.
— Mickey Rourke is captivating. But then, he can’t help it. He’s so good, and such a natural, that all he really needs to do is “show up” and you want to watch him. Other actors show their work. Either because their egos are somehow involved, or because they just flat out are not as talented and so their efforts are apparent. You never see Mickey Rourke work. In the ridiculous movies he made in the 90s, where the material is terrible, you still don’t see him “working”. It’s almost worse what you see. You see a man who just doesn’t care, who is in it for the money, who has contempt for the project he is in, and can’t wait to get home that night and have a drink and fuck his girlfriend. He’s lazy. Being that good at something can make you lazy. If you are not challenged, if you are not asked to rise to the occasion, acting can become a huge bore. I am not absolving him – because look, he has a gift, and he threw it away. It makes me sad to see him in those bad movies. But still: even here, in the middle of a dumb thriller, you cannot take your eyes off of him. And he manages to suggest, in between the lines, how dangerous this guy is.
— There are some lovely scenes between him and a prostitute, a bleached-blonde British bimbo who is in charge of keeping an eye on him. In true Mickey Rourke fashion, he treats her with interest and respect – asking her at one point, “Why do you do this?” He doesn’t ask in a judgmental way. He’s just curious. And when she comes on to him, he pushes her hand away, gently, almost regretfully … Nope. He cannot have sex with this damaged woman who is a prostitute just so she can support her young daughter. It wouldn’t be right. All of this is dreadfully cliche, naturally, but Rourke fills it up, makes it real and interesting.
— The scene where Sammi Davis, the blind girl, is attacked at night by one of Alan Bates’ goons – is truly terrifying. She can’t see, she lies in bed in a white slip, Mickey Rourke has just left, she’s just had sex for the first time (with him) – and it was tender and sweet … and suddenly this goombah we’ve seen earlier in the movie sneaks into her room. He wants to know what it is like to have sex with a blind girl. (Of course we know this because the script pounds us over the head with it, foreshadowing the inevitable confrontation from minute one). But her terror is palpable, her eyes flit around wildly – and he’s in the room but she doesn’t know where – and yes, it’s all kind of dumb, and once again – a moment of terror for one of the characters is basically just an excuse for Mickey Rourke to barge back in at the last second and kick some ass, gratifying the stupid popcorn-fed audience – but still: it’s a good moment.
— And whaddya know, after all this, the very last moment of the film brought me to tears. I knew I was being manipulated, and I knew how it would end from very early on in the film … but it worked anyway. This is mainly because of Bob Hoskins’ commitment to his dumb lines, making them real, and Mickey Rourke’s unbreakable sense of reality and truth.
So no, I shed no tears for NORTHERN IRELAND during Prayer for the Dying because the filmmakers did not earn that response from me. But Bob Hoskins crying and clutching at Rourke as Rourke lies there with a shining soft light on his face … Yeah. I’ll cry. You got me, ya feckin’ bastards.