Pull quotes are sometimes picked in order to achieve the greatest possible hyperbolic effect. In the trailer for Lenny Abrahamson’s What Richard Did, the blurbs suggest that the film defines the generation it depicts: millenials at the cusp of adulthood, ill-equipped to inherit the real world.
The most startling blurb is from The Irish Times which proclaims What Richard Did is “the most important Irish film of this century.” Not this year so far and not this decade so far, mind you, but of the century. It’s impossible for any film (perhaps even the most important Irish film of the century) to live up to that sort of hype.
What Richard Did is not the most important Irish film of the century, but that’s not a slight against it. While the movie doesn’t fit the greatness blurbed upon it, much of the film is compelling because of the performances of its young cast, especially its star Jack Reynor.
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What Richard Did
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Release Date: TBD
Reynor plays Richard, who seems like a normal-enough teenager. Early in the film he seems like a friend you’d want to have and a nice guy to be around: charming, funny, social, trusted; loved by his parents, well-regarded by his friends’s parents. When he and his friends go to a beach house to party, it’s Richard who plays both guide and guardian angel. He’s an all-around good kid, and he’s a solid rugby player as well. If the film was set in the US rather than Ireland, Richard would probably also be an Eagle Scout.
But a film like What Richard Did shows the way that these idyllic lives can go downhill and darken from just a few bad decisions. It all starts to go wrong when Richard falls for Lara, played by Roisin Murphy. The two of them immediately have that fawning, gaga-eyed connection of most teens who get suddenly infatuated. The only problem is Connor (Sam Keeley), Lara’s boyfriend and a friend of Richard’s from the rugby team. Richard and Lara’s decision to hook up — a venial sin for them, like underage drinking — spells the first signs of ruin in this upper-middle-class existence. Eventually Richard and his friends do something unforgivable, and the choices they make in the aftermath will define the shape of their lives.
Reynor is remarkable in the film, giving Richard depths beyond the sunny facade. With Lara, his love first seems innocent (well… at least as innocent as screwing your friend’s girlfriend can be) but he soon becomes stifling. Richard moves too fast for a relationship that’s bound to be fleeting. He gets clingy and possessive for no reason, and he even tries to guilt Lara into showing him more attention. Given a little more time, Richard would probably become abusive. In addition to this dark side, there’s also an aloofness. When Richard’s surrounded by people, he looks alone. As popular and well-liked as he is, he’s directionless. Life seems grand and full of opportunities for a guy like Richard, but he doesn’t know what to do with anything he’s given.
What Richard Did seems like a sort of millenial version of Larry Clark’s Kids and Bully, but it doesn’t have the same kind of punch as those films. Both Kids and Bully are much dirtier and more brutal than What Richard Did. The sex and the violence is so frank in those Clark movies, the dialogue so real. On top of that, the events depicted in Kids and Bully are so oppressively bleak that they’re downright apocalyptic.
What Richard Did is more about the way these kids of privilege are coddled and encouraged to get away with awful things. It lacks the messy, smudged-up vulgarity of the Clark movies, but that might have a lot to do with the social distinction of the upper-middle-class Irish suburbs. (The movie probably has more resonance in Ireland since the events of the film are very loosely inspired by a true story.) These teens never have their sense of vulnerability stripped from them. The boys will be boys, even long into adulthood. But, like the saying goes: pride goeth before the fall. And boy, how the mighty do fall.
I don’t want to explicitly say what Richard does in this film, but I think the circumstances in the Clark movies and Abrahamson’s film differ in an important way: in Kids and Bully we’re dealing with selfish and willfully malicious acts, in What Richard Did we’re dealing with selfish accidents. By stripping Richard of completely intentional malice in the defining action of the film, it allows the movie to play with the idea of responsibility and morality. It also gives Abrahamson and screenwriter Malcolm Campbell a chance to see what happens to Richard’s friendships in the fall out.
There’s no moral gray zone, but Richard acts as if there is. He has to live with the stain on his conscience, and it seems like he’s mostly okay with it save for one moment of attempted catharsis later in the film. That’s where Reynor shows the other side of the aloof and lost Richard: a feral little boy shrieking because he knows he’s screwed up everything in his life unforgivably. But there’s a new dilemma in this fake moral gray zone: what lesser actions are permissible if you can get away with something horrible. Maybe anything can be a venial sin.
I’ve been going back and forth about the ending of What Richard Did, which disappointed me at first. The film sort of trails off in its last 20 minutes. There’s no simple moral solution in the world of the the film, but how could there be? There’s not even a kind of powerful resolution that can come out of it the way that the movie is set up. What Richard Did was adapted from the book Bad Day in Blackrock by Kevin Power, which seems to address the actual legal punishment meted out against Richard.
Instead What Richard Did goes for a kind of conclusion of contrasts: here’s Richard at the end, but think about where he was when we first looked into his life. I don’t think it’s quite as effective as the bleak cudgels in Kids or Bully, and I don’t really know if its subtlety drives home the outrage over the solipsistic amorality of youth as well as it could. The result is more like a character study of amorality to me than an indictment of a generation. It’s an ending I guess I like in concept and in retrospect, but I also feel spotty about it in terms of execution. Yet there’s still something in Reynor’s performance that’s commendable even when the film decides to close on loaded ellipses.
[For tickets and more info on What Richard Did, visit tribecafilm.com/festival.]