Ludicrous (and Not So Ludicrous) Things About Prayer For the Dying (1987)

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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.

LUDICROUS THINGS

— 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.

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17 Responses to Ludicrous (and Not So Ludicrous) Things About Prayer For the Dying (1987)

  1. Emily says:

    The easiest way to tell the difference between a Southern and Northern Irish accent: for the most part, you can pretty much understand what the Southerners are saying. I was watching some documentary about the loyalists on Youtube a few weeks back and came very close to actually shouting the words “CAN WE PLEASE GET SOME @#$%ING SUBTITLES AROUND HERE?” out loud. It was frustrating, because the one or two words that you can’t understand always seem to be the exact ones that the whole point of what the person is saying hinge on.

    (I have a friend who was living in Belfast when this movie was being filmed. At least I think it was this movie – Rourke may have shot another there I don’t know about. He’s got a pretty funny story, that I won’t tell here because it’s kind of politicky and stuff and that always spoils the more interesting stuff)

  2. red says:

    I know Rourke did NOT make friends with his comments about this movie – and got in big big trouble for it.

    It’s funny – member that scene in Trainspotting when they obviously decided, ‘Okay, look, we need to have subtitles even though they are, technically, speaking English …” It’s when they’re in the club. I was so glad they did because it was incomprehensible to me what they were saying!!

    My accent coach said to me (and I love this), “In the South of Ireland, they throw the bowling ball DOWN onto the floor, in the North of Ireland, they throw the balling ball UP into your face.”

  3. Emily says:

    Hahahaha. I love that line from your accent coach. Yeah, there’s another indie movie I have on VHS called Orphans that was set in Glasgow and they just went ahead and gave the whole damn thing subtitles. I’m grateful for it too, or else I would have been scratching my head the whole time thinking the movie was set in Pakistan or something.

  4. red says:

    The Scottish accent is really tough for me to understand sometimes – it’s so specific, so twisted. Beautiful, really, but I’m like, “ahhhhh, is that English, why can’t I understand you???”

  5. Lisa says:

    Have you seen The Wind That Shakes the Barley yet? I had to watch it with subtitles. Good god.

    And can I just say something ludicrous about THAT movie (other than if the drug dealers hadn’t killed her, I was about ready to, she was THAT annoying)? I read more than one review that said it couldn’t be an “honest” portrayal of life in Ireland because it didn’t show how the IRA fit into the story.

    Um, hello? THEY HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH HER STORY. Ye gads.

  6. Lisa says:

    Shit. I totally left out the part that said I *didn’t* have to watch Veronica Geurin with subtitles. The last two paragraphs have to do with her.

  7. red says:

    Ah, yes, Ireland, where even when you go to get a cup of coffee, the IRA are somehow involved! Grrrr.

    I have not seen Wind that shakes the barley – it’s on my list – I’ve heard great things about it!

  8. Lisa says:

    Well, be sure to have a dishtowel or a hand full of hankies. It’s devastating — all the way through, not just the end.

  9. Anne says:

    I didn’t understand one of my Northern Irish uncles’ *names* until I was about eight. I thought for the longest time I had an uncle “Q” because that’s how “Hugh” sounded to me at the time.

  10. Carrie says:

    Q for Hugh ha ha ha so true, or Q-ee for Hughie. Carl for Carol (I have no idea how that works).

    I have the distinction of being married to a Belfast man who Al Jazeera subtitled. The only one out of all of the interviewees.

    Emily, the emails I got where that was the *only* comment was people laughing over the subtitles. As in, gosh, if only he had those all the time….

    We always used to use 3 iconic (to us anyway) movie lines to make fun of (or use to slip into!) Irish accents: “Nobody touches the priest”; “There’ll be no more killin here”, and “I’m a free man, I’m goin out the front door!” (see who gets that line off the bat). Mickey Rourke’s accent was very good as far as Irish movie accents. Brad Pitt’s wasn’t too bad, what made his funny was all the Aye’s. You could do a drinking game with that, he had so many.

    I’ve always wanted to read the backstory of Prayer for the Dying, what/who Mickey Rourke was connected with, what his research was, what he thought and did during filming, etc. I’ve heard rumors of his “IRA tattoos” and republican support, but never found anything other than the cyber wisp o’will about it. I’d love to read the background behind all of it, given Rourke’s character I just think it would be fascinating.

  11. red says:

    Carrie – hahaha

    you should make that into a T shirt:

    AL JAZEERA SUBTITLED MY HUSBAND

    Brill!!

    In the 4 part interview with Rourke I posted he covers a little bit of what happened with Prayer for the Dying. He admits his naivete, and also that because of some of his comments – England refused to show the movie, which was a terrible blow to the film’s potential (I mean, it’s a bad movie, but still) … and he learned his lesson about opening his big mouth but by then it was too late. The film was boycotted, etc., and it was pretty much all his fault.

  12. red says:

    Aye …

    You know. Brad Pitt’s was good. I was surprised. He didn’t overdo it like many actors do where they end up sounding like a glorified leprechaun.

  13. Carrie says:

    I started to watch those clips – were they taped by someone filming their tv? It was hard to hear and I bookmarked them to watch later. Just haven’t gotten back to it yet. I’m loving this Rourke series of yours, though!!

    Someone videoed the book launch this week and instead of subtitles on YouTube I transcribed the speeches for everyone who couldn’t understand them. I think I only had one [unknown] word that I could not for the life of me figure out. “Scatter gun” was a phrase that took me a few listens before it dawned on me what was being said.

    My family still complains they can’t understand a word of my husband when they speak on the phone. It’s lucky that all they do when they talk is joke around, which means that the conversation goes like this –
    “Bout ye garble garble garble ha ha ha”
    “Oh yeah, hah hahahahee hee”.
    Hands the phone back to me
    “I have no idea what he said”
    I finish the conversation, turn to him and he says, “What were they laughing at, I have no idea?”

    We’re going to see Hunger tonight. That should be a little intense.

  14. red says:

    Carrie – hahahahaha I love the phone conversation with everyone laughing but not knowing why!!

    I really want to see Hunger – please let me know what you think. I thought of you both when I saw some of the advance reviews and press.

    And I don’t remember having a hard time understanding your husband when we were there. Was he maybe speaking slower or something so we could understand??

  15. Carrie says:

    I think the key was he didn’t say much, ha ha. I can understand him fine but I guess it varies for people. At least he doesn’t have an Armagh accent, that one to me just sounds like someone speaking through a mouth full of cotton wool. I have no idea.

    I’ll let you know about Hunger after we’ve seen it. It’s the kind of movie you want to see and dread seeing at the same time.

  16. Emily says:

    Carrie – hahaha. I was one of those “Al Jezeera subtitled your husband!” e-mails. I don’t know why I got a kick out of that so much. I just thought it was funny, while being grateful at the same time. Finally, somebody realizing the rest of us might need a little help with it.

  17. red says:

    Carrie – hahahaha Well, first of all, how could he get a word in edgewise while we girls sat in the living room watching Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and bawling our eyes out??