Monday, May 7, 2007
Dir. Jon Kasdan
Starring Adam Brody, Meg Ryan, Kristen Stewart, Olympia Dukakis, Makenzie Vega
Now here comes a mainstream movie that has taken a beating by most critics and was mostly ignored by audiences everywhere. Yet this film (while certainly flawed) does so many things right and makes several refreshingly original choice that it becomes mind boggling to consider how duds like Blades of Glory and Disturbia have received much better press. It certainly makes sense, but is no less distressing, that the latter films would perform much better in the box office, but it would be nice if studios were encouraged to reach for some originality. This is a film that needed critical support to survive, but instead they were yukking it up at Will Ferrell's antics or pretending to be scared by Disturbia's lame slasher movie ending.
In the Land of Women is about Carter Webb (Adam Brody) a soft core porn writer who's just been dealt a devastating blow; the Hollywood superstar actress he had been dating broke up with him. In his grief, he decides to take a vacation, leaving the lights of Los Angeles to help take care of his ailing grandmother who lives in a quiet suburban neighborhood. While there, he develops a relationship with the family across the street, particularly Sarah Hardwicke (Meg Ryan) and her teenage daughter Lucy Hardwicke (Kristen Stewart). The story follows how these relationships affect the three characters involved.
The film comes from Jonathan Kasdan, son of Lawrence Kasdan, and it shares his father's focus on quiet character development. The premise sounds like something that could easily be turned into a wacky sex romp, but this is a mature film that takes time to develop its three leads. Kasdan has a rally nice touch for these soft moments, such as when Carter and Sarah take their daily walks, or when Carter and Lucy spend time on the football field. These moments work not only because the three leads have a very easy unforced chemistry between them, but also because Kasdan's observant screenplay does a good job capturing the way real people talk and interact.
Kasdan is not interested in letting a formula dictate the actions of his character. Other than a few moments in the third act, standard plot devices are not to be found in this movie. The relationships between the three leads develop in interesting and unpredictable ways. This is not a movie about which one Carter will get in the sack. It's not even about the trite romantic comedy cliche of who he will end up with happily ever after. Instead, the story explores how Carter's chance appearance makes all three characters reassess where they currently are in their lives.
As good as the film is developing its leads, the supporting characters are very poorly handled. Sarah's husband appears so infrequently that at first it was hard to tell if they were separated or not. His exclusion from much of the story cheapens the dramatic payoff of his character's revelation. Lucy has her own drama in the high school world and Kasdan never gets a chance to find a grasp on this section of the movie. Lucy's boyfriend is a typical jock but she seems to get along better with his best friend. Once again, the exclusion of these characters from most of the film hampers the eventual resolution of this subplot.
Also problematic is the treatment of Carter's grandmother. Portrayed by the great Olympia Dukakis, she is treated like a punch line throughout the movie. At one point, she answers the door without pants on, a scene that was played up in the few ads that were run for the film. Some of this was admittedly funny, but it doesn't really fit in with the rest of the film. Late in the film, when Kasdan asks us to care about the grandmother, it rings completely hollow and feels like a plot device more than anything else.
A film like this requires strong performances to carry it and that's we get here. Adam Brody gets away from The O.C. and shows he can play a character much different than hyper motor mouth Seth Cohen. He has perhaps the most difficult role, mostly reacting to the events around him, but sells it well and develops a nice chemistry with the other leads. Meg Ryan's performance remains refreshingly reserved even when events in the third act threaten to lead to overacting. However, the real revelation here is Kristen Stewart. In every single scene, you can sense a stunning screen presence threatening to break out and there always appears to be something going on behind those expressive eyes.
While In the Land of Women struggles a bit getting through its third act, its still a nice achievement for Kasdan's debut. He shows some promising filmmaking skill, especially the pacing. Despite the somewhat loose structure of his plot, the film never feels long. Actually the problems with subplots and supporting characters may be due to the short 97 minute running time. The film could have used a good extra 20 minutes and it would have been just fine. As is, this is simply a decent movie with some really strong moments between its three leads, and it should not be overlooked in favor of the more mundane studio fare.
Sunday, May 6, 2007
Dir. Sarah Polley
Starring Gordon Pinsent, Julie Christie, Olympia Dukakis, Kristen Thomson, Wendy Crewson
In Away From Her, director Sarah Polley tackles the issue of Alzheimer’s disease and how it affects an older married couple. This is a movie that could have gone wrong in so many ways. With a young director, many might question her ability to handle such mature issues. Certainly she’d ruin it with cheap payoffs and ludicrous overacting. The plot itself could have easily been done as a cheap TV-movie. However, Sarah Polley the actress has always been known to make risky choices. After making her breakthrough with the lyrical Atom Egoyan masterpiece The Sweet Hereafter, Polley refused to take the easy route, choosing mostly independent films from directors as varied as David Cronenberg, Doug Liman, Michael Winterbottom, and Wim Wenders. With her first film as director, Polley stays true to that philosophy, making an honest and mature film without standard contrivances.
The film tells the story of Fiona (Julie Christie) and Grant (Gordon Pinsent), an older married couple who haven’t spent more than a month apart in thirty years. When Fiona begins forgetting simple things, they soon learn that she has Alzheimer’s disease. Even worse is the realization that the onset has been so severe that they’re left with no choice but to send her to a nursing home. Their once unbreakable bond becomes severely tested by this separation, especially when Fiona begins to turn her affections to a fellow patient.
Polley’s previous association with Atom Egoyan is evident in nearly every frame of this story. She adapted the screenplay from a short story by Alice Munro, and clearly made a point to make the dialogue as poetic as in Egoyan’s films. What’s amazing is how well it works. At no point does the dialogue feel forced, and that’s a testament to the performances of her cast. Working with actors mostly well above her age range, she shows a distinctive skill at coaxing natural performances from them. The only one that doesn’t work is Wendy Crewson as an annoyingly perky administrator at the nursing home. The idea of the character is sound, but Crewson plays it a bit too broadly to work in the context of this film.
An interesting narrative structure is employed to liven up a pretty basic plot. The story of Fiona and Grant dealing with news of the disease is intercut with scenes of Grant visiting the home of a woman who seems to know Fiona. This sort of time shifting structure has been employed excessively in recent films, but here it serves a better purpose than the director just showing off. The woman Grant visits, played by Olympia Dukakis, is extremely important to the overall story and the plot structure allows her relationship with Grant to have a complete arc, instead of a random interruption into the proceedings halfway through.
Julie Christie is sure to get plenty of attention for her wonderful portrait of a woman whose memory makes it difficult to remember where her emotions should lie, but the most stunning performance comes from Gordon Pinsent. A veteran Canadian actor with 99 credits to his name, he’s stayed mostly under the radar in the states, but hopefully that will change soon. His beautifully reserved performance is a splendid example of natural acting that hasn’t been seen since Peter Fonda in Ulee’s Gold. Also stunning in a supporting role is Kristen Thomson, as a nurse who presents Grant with the blunt realities of his situation.
There is one unfortunate moment where Polley takes us completely out of the film. While watching news coverage of the Iraq War, Fiona bursts out, “Don’t they remember Vietnam?” This analogy is not without merit (it has certainly made countless times), but it does not belong in this story. The entire movie takes place in the small context of the individual lives affected by the disease. This simplistic moment punctures that careful little world that Polley had created and interrupts the reserved, somber atmosphere of the film. While this may seem like a fairly small moment, it sticks out like a sore thumb, akin to a great novel having one page ripped out and replaced with something from Danielle Steele.
Thankfully the movie is able to recover its momentum, and other than some minor contrived plot points (in a key scene, Grant is able to retrieve an address too easily), Away From Her is a remarkable debut for Sarah Polley. She shows a maturity that surpasses most Hollywood filmmakers. There’s a suggestion that Grant had an affair, and he wonders if she is punishing him for it. At several points in the film, Polley is willing to let things go unresolved. She understands that what actually happened is far less important than how it affected the characters involved. There should be no question about it; Sarah Polley is a promising filmmaker, and at the age of 28 already has a great film under her belt.
Dir. Jake Kasdan
Starring David Duchovny, Sigourney Weaver, Ioan Gruffudd, Lindsay Sloane, Judy Greer
Jake Kasdan’s The TV Set is a comedy about veteran TV staff writer Mike Klein (David Duchovny). He’s just about to reach his dream of seeing his own pilot script being made into a TV series, but must jump through a few hoops before that happens. Those hoops include: slightly insane network president Lenny (Sigourney Weaver) who lets her preteen daughter make judgments on the prospective television shows, network interference with casting of his male lead, and network requests for script changes that water down his main premise. As Jake juggles artistic pride with financial necessity, Kasdan uses this story to make pointed comments about the nature of modern American television.
The TV Set is an amusing satire with several knowing jabs at Hollywood, and will probably be funniest to those familiar with how the TV industry works. They will understand the amusing swipes at the nature of pilot season, network upfronts, and demographic targets. That doesn’t mean it won’t be enjoyable for those unfamiliar with those terms. The overall story still stands fairly well on it’s own, and it’s very amusing to watch Mike’s increasing despair as his show gets trashed by the network and their reliance on focus groups.
It’s not a coincidence that Kasdan has populated this film with actors most known for their television experience. Besides David Duchovny (X-Files),we have Justine Bateman (Family Ties) as Mike’s wife, Lucy Davis (UK version of The Office) as a network exec’s wife, Kathryn Joosten (The West Wing) as an editor, and Lindsey Sloane (Grosse Point, also a TV industry satire) as the actress who wins the job of female lead. By doing this, you get the sense that while Kasdan is satirizing television, he’s doing it from the position of a nostalgic fan. This perspective is much more interesting than if it came from an arrogant elitist.
The TV Set loses its focus in a subplot that follows a former BBC executive (who struggles to deal with the American television format. It’s perfectly reasonable for Kasdan to criticize American television by comparing it to the BBC, and utilizing The Office’s Lucy Davis to dole out some of the criticism was a smart idea. Unfortunately, all of this is trapped in an annoying family subplot, as Davis struggles with adapting to the United States and is constantly seen either pouting or crying because her husband is working late and missing family functions. This becomes tiresome very quickly, and is an abhorrent waste of the actress’ considerable comedic talents.
There are some amusing sight gags in the film. During network meetings, the network primetime schedule can be seen in the background. Mixed in with real life programs are fake shows that unfortunately sound all too real, such as Malibu D.A., Skrewed, and Stat. The funniest is Slut Wars, a Survivor-type reality series with scantily clad women that becomes a major hit for the network. This at first seemed a bit too broad but when you consider the nature of prime time television, it’s really not that far off. Perhaps the scariest title of all is JAG. It’s frightening to think of a world where that didn’t get canceled yet.
Some of the gags are a bit too broad. A network session where they test two different versions of Mike’s show before a focus group has some great potential. Unfortunately, the people involved in the focus group are portrayed as ridiculous caricatures and the scene loses most of its inherent humor. Weaver’s entire performance is over the top, with contorted facial movements that distract from her otherwise amusing material. Mike’s constant back problems throughout the movie lead to an unnecessary development that turns out to be a contrived reason for him to not appear at the focus group meeting.
Kasdan occassionally falls prey to some of his own criticisms. He makes several points in the film about how TV caters to hormones and turns women into objects, noting how the focus group responds to Lindsey Sloane’s character. However, in an early scene he kinda does this to Sloane herself, showing her in a changing room with very little clothing. Nothing necessarily wrong with that, but it diminishes the strength of your argument when you do the very same thing.
Still, it’s hard to deny that this is a pretty funny film. Kasdan is a talented director with a good eye for satire and he’s put together an amusing cast. David Duchovny pulls off a great slow burn throughout the course of the film and Lindsey Sloane has the perfect pitch for her character. Despite the several flaws and an abrupt ending, this is an enjoyable comedy that hits its targets more often than not.
Dir. Bong Joon-Ho
Starring Song Gang-ho, Byun Hee-bong, Ko Ah-sung, Park Hae-Il, Bae Du-na
Not many people would consider a South Korean horror film their idea of a fun night at the movies. And that is a shame because Joon-ho Bong's The Host (known as Gwoemul in South Korea) is a film that so many people would enjoy. It may come from a director that most people never heard of, or actors that most audiences haven't seen before, but it is made with so much artistry and unrelenting joy that it feels like an expertly made Hollywood film that could have come from the likes of Steven Spielberg. Unfortunately, language barriers have limited this film to only 70 theatres nationwide, but it is absolutely worth making the trip to the downtown art theater to catch this lively thriller.
After a silly setup involving chemical spillage, we are transported to an ordinary, sunny day in Seoul. Park Hee-Bong (Byun Hee-Bong) is a elderly man who owns a snack shop on the banks of the Han river. Working in the snack shop is his lazy, blundering son Gang-du (Song Gang-ho) whose wife abandoned the family long ago. One day, a gigantic sea creature appears out of nowhere and begins eating all the tourists and residents in sight. One of those eaten is Gang-du's daughter Hyun-Seo (Ko Ah-sung). As the family grieves over her loss, Gang-du gets a mysterious phone call from Hyun-Seo, learning that she is not dead but trapped. Gang-du and his family set out to rescue her from the sea creature.
The most notable thing about The Host is how much fun it has developing the individual family members. Also on board are Gang-Du's siblings; unemployed college graduate Nam-Il (Park Hae-Il) and expert archery competitor Nam-joo (Bae Du-na). Together, the group makes for a very amusing dysfunctional family. There are a number of emotional issues simmering underneath, and they all come out here. It's almost as if the sea creature attack is their own version of a typical American Thanksgiving dinner. The most interesting relationships are drawn between Gang-du and his seemingly disappointed father, and then between Gang-du and his pitying siblings. The way the family emotions work themselves out in humorous style throughout the course of the film is reminiscent of last year’s indie winner Little Miss Sunshine. Just imagine a large sea creature chasing Steve Carell.
The Host owes plenty to the classic monster movies of the past and it does them justice. The opening attack by the creature is beautifully staged, with crowds of people attempting to flee the scene, many of them unsuccessful. Gong-du attempts to battle the villain, using a variety of handy props to hurl in its direction. Sure, the creature is a bit silly, but that only reinforces the film’s knowing homage to the beloved genre. While the proceedings are mostly goofy, the action scenes are incredibly well put together, avoiding the rapid cutting technique that plagues modern Hollywood action directors. Instead, Bong chooses large shots that capture all of the action at once.
The Host is a fun ride, but there are a few missteps along the way. Showing us the exact location of the girl is a big mistake, as it takes away some of the mystery that could have been created otherwise. Also problematic is Bong’s decision to follow the girls exploits as the creature’s prisoner. This only takes away from the interesting far more interesting moments between the family members. The film tries to get a little too political for its own good. While an examination of US-South Korea relations is certainly a timely topic, it just doesn’t work here and feels unnecessary in a film that at 119 minutes already runs long for its genre.
The film has been praised for avoiding the sentimentalism of Spielberg, most notably in War of the Worlds. This is an odd comparison, because if anything, The Host has an overly sentimental ending with a sudden twist that does not work at all with the overall goofy nature of the movie. It forces the audience to accept something we don't really care about. Sure the end of War of the Worlds was ridiculously schmaltzy, but at least there was reason to care about father and son reuniting. In The Host, Bong attempts mixing a melancholy ending with ultimate happiness, but the result is a final scene so contrived that even Spielberg at his worst could never hope to achieve.
Despite getting lost at a few points, The Host is an extremely entertaining motion picture. Joon-ho Bong displays a keen eye for perfectly setting up an action sequence and perfectly balances exciting suspenseful moments with a series of comic moments exploring the dysfunctional family. His talented cast finds the perfect note for the characters, never allowing them to become so silly that all sense of reality is lost. American filmmakers have plenty to learn from this film, and American audiences would do well to embrace this film and the many others like it that come from overseas and struggle to find distribution.
Dir. DJ Caruso
Starring Shia LaBeouf, Sarah Roemer, David Morse, Carrie-Anne Moss, Aaron Yoo
There's a really nice shot early on in Disturbia that provides a glimmer of hope that director DJ Caruso might have a clue. After a harrowing car accident scene, one character escapes from the burning vehicle and rushes to the other side to check on the passenger. Caruso avoids showing a gruesome shot of what happened to the passenger, and instead shows us the horrified reaction of the other character. While this was likely done to achieve a PG-13 rating instead of an R, it still shows a nice instinct that is unfortunately missing from the rest of the film, which takes a premise based on Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window and throws it away with a third act that owes more to Friday the 13th.
Kale (Shia LaBeouf) is a troubled teenager dealing with his father’s recent death. One day he gets fed up with his teacher and punches him in the face. He avoids jail time but the judge decides to restrict him to house arrest. To enforce the conditions of house arrest, he must wear an ankle bracelet that prevents him from leaving his house. Stuck in his house for the summer, Kale starts to peep through his neighbor’s windows and begins to suspect that the mysterious Mr. Turner (David Morse) might be a serial killer.
The film has a very labored and slow build up to explain the central premise. Even after setting up the reasoning for the ankle bracelet, Caruso must go through a series of teen movie cliches before Kale's mother puts her foot down and cuts off his ability to play XBOX games, his ITunes account, and severs the power cord to the television. Now he watches the neighbors because he's bored, a point that could have been made in about 15 minutes less screen time.
The premise has plenty of potential, but the film severely limits itself by only really focusing on one person in the neighborhood to watch. Sure there is the requisite scene where Kale spies on various people in the neighborhood, noting a few that are having sex or have odd habits. But this is quickly dispensed with as he focuses on Mr. Turner. By doing so, it prevents the chance to give us any real surprise with the ending. It would have been much more interesting, and made the film’s ending seem less mundane, to follow multiple characters through the window.
Disturbia doesn’t have much time for that, because it wants to also tell a story of teen romance as Kale begins to fall for new neighbor Ashley (Sarah Roemer). To be fair, this doesn’t come off quite as bad as it could have. There is reasonable chemistry between LaBeouf and Roemer. However, this subplot becomes rather pointless as Ashley has very little impact on the outcome of the movie. An interesting thread, involving her emotionally abusive parents seems to have been excised from the film, and she stunningly disappears from sight during the film’s conclusion.
Despite this, there is some reasonable tension created by the central premise. The middle section of the film, where Kale and his friends try to figure out what Mr. Turner is up to, occasionally builds a decent amount of suspense. Unfortunately, Caruso is not interested in a psychological thriller or really doing anything thought provoking. He completely switches gears in the third act and abandons the entire story by turning the film into a slasher movie. And not even a very good one at that. The grand finale is a long sequence that takes place in an elaborate set that could not possibly exist given the character’s history at that house.
Instead of creating a stylish sense of atmosphere and building suspense to create scares, Caruso relies on cheap tactics to get to the viewer. There are numerous moments in Disturbia where a character bumps into someone or is suddenly surprised by another person, creating gasps in the audience. This is fine to do once, but here it is put to excessive use and by the time the 5th fake scare rolled around, it was hard to care about the real ones anymore. There is one sequence that almost works, where Kale’s friend Ronnie goes over to the house to try and find out what is inside a bag, while Kale does lookout duty. Unfortunately this scene is riddled with a number of logical inconsistencies, including Ronnie conveniently disappearing for a short time under circumstances that make absolutely zero sense in retrospect.
The most staggering thing to notice is that this film has received glowing reviews across the board. Respected critics from to David Edelstein to A.O. Scott are raving about this film and it received a 67% score from the Rotten Tomatoes website. It seems odd that this film would be rewarded with such high praise considering it fails at almost every level most critics tend to rate thrillers. I can understand getting wrapped up in the clever high concept premise, but there is no getting around the atrocious third act. If we don't challenge filmmakers to do anything more thoughtful than a slasher movie ending, then we don't deserve any better.
Dir. Josh Gordon and Will Speck
Starring Will Ferrell, Jon Heder, Jenna Fischer, Will Arnett, Amy Poehler
There’s nothing wrong with making an excessively silly movie. Sometimes it can be great to just sit back and laugh without concern for the deeper issues of the moment. In the past, movies such as The 40 Year Old Virgin and The Nutty Professor have had success at doing this. The problem with Blades of Glory is that it removes itself so far from reality that it’s hard to care about anything that happens in the film, and what we’re left with is not funny enough to overcome the paper thin premise.
Blades of Glory tells the story of rival figure skaters Chazz Michael Michaels (Will Ferrell) and Jimmy MacElroy (Jon Heder). At a major competition, they end up tied and must share the gold medal. During the medal ceremony, the jealous duo gets into an embarrassing fight, leading to their lifetime ban from the sport. Several years later, the pair are convinced to give it a go again as the first male-male pairs skating team. The requisite contrived explanation notes they were only banned from individual competition. They face difficulties along the way, including their own hatred for each other and the threat of a sadistic brother and sister pairs team (Amy Poehler, Will Arnett).
The events in Blades of Glory are played out in a ridiculous over the top manner. The routines that Chazz and Jimmy perform are not just exaggerated versions of real life routines, but a series of bizarre moments that are completely disconnected from reality. Jimmy pulls out a dove at the end of one of his performances, and Chazz doesn’t even perform a real routine, completely stopping at several points and interacting with the audience. Figure skating routines are ripe material for a good satire, but Blades of Glory goes too far and thus loses any connection with the very subject it wishes to parody.
The film makes sure to prevent any connection to the two main characters. Both of them are presented as silly caricatures instead of anything resembling real people. Perhaps the funniest aspect of the pair is that they are inspired by Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan (who makes her own cameo in the film). Unfortunately we’re not really given any reason to root for this duo, other than the fact that their rivals are horrible people. As the film builds in predictable fashion towards the climax, its hard to care if Chazz and Jimmy will win because the movie has been telling us all along to laugh at them, not root for them.
Of course, all of these gripes would be rather pointless if the film was funny enough. For the most part, Blades of Glory fails to maintain a consistent comic tone, missing its targets more often than not. The usual assortment of toilet humor is on display here, with plenty of crotch jokes, vomit scenes, and boob grabbing. Some of this is admittedly funny, particularly a scene where Chazz is caught in an uncompromising situation and his attempts to cover it up (so to speak) only makes things worse. Unfortunately, these moments are few and far between. The rest is a fairly repetitive sequence of events that gets old really fast and suggests that this was material better suited for a short Saturday Night Live sketch.
Part of the blame must go to filmmakers Josh Gordon and Will Speck, former directors of popular television commercials. They appear to be out of place with a 93 minute running time. The timing between the actors often seems to be out of sync, especially with Amy Poehler and Will Arnett. Both are extremely talented comic actors, but here the best they can do is sneer throughout the entire film, and many of the jokes written for the pair fall completely flat. Upstaging them is the wonderful Jenna Fischer, who plays the mistreated younger sister of the pair. Fischer’s sheepish vulnerability is put to good use here, and she is the only character in the entire film that resembles a human being.
There are a few things that work in the movie. Gordon and Speck put together a hilarious extended chase sequence near the end of the movie where characters must use figure skates on surfaces clearly not intended for that purpose. There’s an amusing running bit with a stalker, who casually mentions he will kill Jimmy one day, even while he’s gushing over him. This suggests some potential filmmaking talent, but perhaps for their next outing the pair will put as much thought and effort into their film as Jimmy and Chazz put into their routines.
Dir. Ken Loach
Starring Cillian Murphy, Padraic Delaney, Liam Cunningham, Sabrina Barry, Gerard Kearney
The Wind That Shakes the Barley is a beautifully photographed film with expansive views of the Irish countryside. It contains a cast filled with authentic performers, who feel just right fitting into the period setting. It seems clear that the events of the film are very personal to director Ken Loach, given the way he understandably tips the scales in the favor of his own point of view. Despite these admirable strengths, the film never comes together because Loach’s reserved technique saps away the inherent dramatic power contained in the story.
The Wind That Shakes the Barley transports us to 1920’s Ireland and the struggle for Irish independence. Teddy (Padraic Delaney) is the leader of a local guerilla group, but his brother Damien (Cillian Murphy) just wants to get through medical school. After witnessing a series of atrocities, Damien is inspired to join the cause and fights valiantly for his country. When a treaty is signed that gives Ireland a limited version of home rule, the brothers priorities change once again and they end up fighting against each other in a brutal civil war that would tear Ireland apart.
This isn’t a typical war movie filled with expansive battle scenes. Loach portrays the war as a series of smaller conflicts led by guerilla groups. The men fighting aren’t your typical grunts, but the average working class man fed up with British rule. The hardworking local citizenry risk their homes and their lives to support the cause. The drab colors used suggest a dreary existence for these people, and fighting for independence is the one thing they can cling to that gives their life meaning.
Loach makes an incisive point about how war can change people. A truce is signed in 1921 that ends hostilities, but only allows a limited version of independence and still demands allegiance to the British crown. Teddy is a naturally gifted leader and he clearly doesn’t want to give that up, thus he supports the treaty, allowing him to continue a leadership role in the new Irish army. However, Damien is haunted by some of the actions he undertook during the war. He can only reconcile such actions with his total commitment to his belief in full Irish independence. To him, everything he had done was worthless if he has to swear an oath to the very country he changed his entire life to fight against. Thanks to Murphy's strong performance, Damien's transformation is one of the few aspects of the film that is emotionally involving.
The Wind That Shakes the Barley has a decidedly one sided view about the treaty situation. The film clearly takes a stand against the truce and those who support it are considered traitors or cowards. This is certainly Loach’s right to take the anti-treaty side, but he demeans the complexity of the situation by presenting a one-dimensional view of the opposing argument. Any attempt to give weight to the pro-treaty side is thrown aside by the thematic weight of the ending and the trashing of IRA hero Michael Collins (not to mention future British hero Winston Churchill). It should be noted that even Eamonn de Valera, the Irish president who opposed the treaty at the time, would later remark that his own opposition was a mistake.
Even this would be fine if there had been some passion in the filmmaking, but everything here is told in a dry, reserved manner better suited for a more objective view of events. During the most horrific moments, including the execution of a childhood friend, Loach generally pulls the camera back and observes things from a distance. This makes it feel more like a history lesson than a personal story about the fight for independence. Even in the film’s final scene, Loach doesn’t let us connect with a key character, almost completely muting the tragedy that has taken place.
Loach also fails with a misguided attempt to try and show a balanced portrait of the Catholic Church’s role during the conflict. Early in the film, a priest is shown nobly praying for the IRA members. Later on, during a sermon, a priest attacks the anti-treaty crowd and threatens them with excommunication. There is some potency to the complaint against the Church’s involvement in political matters, but without enough time to fully explore this or enough care to create a more three dimensional character, it would have been a better idea to leave it out completely.
There is no doubt that that the struggle for Irish independence was a very noble cause, and the argument against the treaty has considerable merit. The atrocities committed by the British throughout the film and throughout Irish history are certainly abhorrent. However, Loach’s vision ultimately fails because he is either uninterested in the deeper intricacies of the situation or unable to provide a more visceral and intimate connection to the very people fighting for independence.