The things I do for Ciarán Hinds! As a fan, I feel compelled to watch all his movies. Even In Bruges, where he gets killed in the first minute of the film (Martin McDonagh, you have some serious ‘splaining to do).
With McCanick, I knew Mr. Hinds’ role would be “small but pivotal,” and it is. I knew the film would be violent and gritty, and it is. I am the kind of person who has to look away at the bad parts. But McCanick stars the amazing talent David Morse, who played Sharkey in Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer on Broadway (as well as Washington in the HBO series John Adams, and Detective Tritter in House). The film also features the Beauteous Cory Monteith from Glee, whose life was tragically cut short just before McCanick debuted in Toronto. With a cast like that, it had to be good! Right?
My research on the film’s director Josh Waller did not bode well. His other current film is about fifty women who are abducted and forced to fight each other. I found this illuminating quote giving Waller’s thoughts on the women-in-prison catfight genre:
I personally am not a fan of exploitation films. I thought, Well, if I’m going to do a film which functions within this largely exploitative subgenre of women-in-prison, the only way I can actually do it and still look myself in the mirror would be to take it as seriously as if it were men that were abducted and forced to fight each other.
Am I the only one who finds this hilarious?
Anyway, I had to laugh again when I saw Rex Reed’s review of McCanick. He referred to “a wasted Ciarán Hinds,” but I’m not sure which way he meant it. (Director Josh: “Aw, come on, Ciarán! I warned you not to eat those brownies… I was saving them for the wrap party!”)
Spoiler Alert, But If You Read Rex’s Review, He Was There Before Me…
Rex’s evisceration of McCanick as a “grim wack job” may be the most scathing review I’ve ever read. He actually refers to Waller’s direction as “nincompoopery.” He is kinder to the actors, but thinks their time was–ahem–wasted. After watching the film itself, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I’m not sure why men are so often interested in this subject matter (tough-guy cop goes bad and hunts down an ex-con who knows his darkest secret, and incidentally drives a cool muscle car down the mean streets of Philly!). Hasn’t this kind of thing been done before? The film seemed very anachronistic, particularly with regard to the nature of the secret. Twenty or thirty years ago, it might have worked much better.
On the other hand, I thought McCanick was interesting from a purely formal point of view. The whole thing takes place over one day, observing the Aristotelian unities of action, place and time. It starts out with McCanick getting up in the morning on his birthday, with no inkling of what is about to happen. By the end of the day, there is no going back to his previous life. There’s a fair amount of suspense in the first half. McCanick embarks on a mad rampage through the city as soon as he discovers that Simon Weeks (Cory Monteith) has been released from prison, but it’s unclear why he is so overwrought. Suffering through all the scenes where McCanick seems to be losing it, I wondered, “what is the point of all this, if he’s just a corrupt cop who has finally run amok?” But the mystery is gradually cleared up through flashbacks to his first meetings with Weeks, and the dark secret isn’t what we thought.
The acting is what carries this movie. David Morse has a quality of authenticity that lets him draw the character of McCanick as a man who’s been on the edge of the cliff for a long time and is finally taking a spectacular leap into the abyss. He keeps oscillating between torturer and tortured soul. There is one truly terrifying scene near the end where he picks up a crowbar, but at other times, he seems lost and bewildered.
The thoroughly grim wack job is enlivened by a rare moment of humor when McCanick’s partner Floyd observes him eating carrots (McCanick is an older man and needs the fiber).
Floyd: Enjoying your salad?
McCanick (offended): It ain’t fuckin’ salad…. it’s crudités.
Floyd: What’s that, Polish or something?
McCanick: It’s French.
Basically, it’s a case of erotomania. McCanick’s got it bad, and that ain’t good. Once I understood that the film is about sex and (yes) love, I liked it much better. McCanick is brought low by his mad passion for Weeks. Yes, beating someone to a pulp and sending him to prison for three years is an odd demonstration of love, but there’s an explanation. McCanick doesn’t realize he’s gay! When Simon mockingly announces this unexpected news, Eugene takes it badly. Is it really possible for a man not to have any idea that he desires another man? I mean, desires him so much that he would risk everything to have him? If you suspend disbelief on that point, the film makes sense. Sort of.
The secret explains a lot. It explains why McCanick has to see Simon Weeks again as soon as he’s released from prison. He’s compelled to see him, because he’s obsessed with him. It explains why McCanick, upon first meeting the winsome hustler Simon, had an overwhelming urge to provision and protect him (there’s a scene where a john hassles Simon, and McCanick, who is lurking nearby, chases him away). It explains why McCanick breaks into Simon’s apartment and trashes the place, but only after he reads the lad’s diary. Because he can’t help himself. He pursues Simon to the bitter end, not in order to destroy him, but in order to ask him why he didn’t spill the beans. Was it because Simon had some shred of feeling for him too? None of the other reviewers have figured this out. But I think I’m right. And if I am, the movie is better than it’s been given credit for.
Ciarán Hinds plays Quinn, McCanick’s captain. The character is an American James Langton, but less ethical and (if possible) even more domineering and hectoring. In fact, I suspect that Hinds was cast on the strength of his kick-ass performances as Langton. He only has two scenes, but makes the most of them. He gets off to a good start right away by dropping the F-bomb and jokingly advising McCanick not to get killed on his birthday (oooh, dramatic irony!!! They must have taught that to screenwriter Daniel Noah in film school.)
In the first scene, you can tell that Quinn cares about McCanick and is worried about his friend as well as himself. He stuck his own neck out when he allowed McCanick to frame Weeks for a murder. In the second scene, Quinn furiously confronts McCanick with his outrageous behavior. If anything, he comes off as a bigger badass than McCanick. And he gets really jiggy with the F-word. More than one fan has mentioned that the string of profanity in this scene is unprecedented for Hinds. I found it highly enjoyable, especially on the second viewing.
As for Cory Monteith, I thought he did an excellent job in his role as Simon. It was radically different from his part in Glee as a popular jock who also likes to sing. Here he convincingly plays a street hustler who’s had a terrible life. There is something distinctly vulnerable about him. He’s terrified of McCanick and rightly so, but he also feels compassion for him. It was sad to watch, knowing that this was his last role. One of the things that interested me about the role was how different the erotomania plot is when the love object is another man. Simon Weeks is completely innocent. His only “crime” is to reject McCanick and mock him for not recognizing his own sexual identity. For this he is victimized over and over by the self-loathing McCanick. But in the standard sexual obsession plot, the object of obsession is a devious, manipulative woman who has her own agenda. The femme fatale. Like Kathleen Turner in Body Heat!
Sorry, Josh Waller. I won’t be watching your next movie. Unless Ciarán Hinds happens to be in it. David Morse, you Beautiful six-foot-four hunk of man, I’ll give you another chance. If it’s a romantic comedy, or Conor McPherson’s next movie…