Collateral Damage: Violence in Film and Society

Part 1. Five Minutes of Heaven: A Review

(Warning: contains spoilers.)

“Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.” —Martin Luther King, Jr.

Another version of the poster says it all: “A tightly-structured, nerve-crunchingly tense drama” that makes a powerful statement about violence.

Five Minutes of Heaven (2009), starring Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt (of Waking Ned Devine fame) was one of those films whose premise balanced on a knife edge: either this would be a fascinating glimpse into the resolution of violent conflict or just another pointless revenge fantasy/action flick. Thankfully director Oliver Hirschbiegel and screenwriter Guy Hibbert were smart enough not to squander a great opportunity to create a thoughtful, complex story about the aftermath of The Troubles in Ireland.

The 17-year-old Alistair Little commits the murder that will shatter many lives, including his own.

Neeson plays Alistair Little, who as a 17-year-old Irish Protestant joins the Ulster Volunteer Force and is soon commissioned to carry out the assassination of a local Catholic man. Despite careful preparations and well-briefed cronies—three more teenaged boys eager to prove their manhood—the plan goes off the rails. The victim’s little brother, Joe Griffen, sees the masked Little commit the murder, although Little lets him live. But in her grief, Joe’s mother blames him for doing nothing to stop the killing. He grows up nursing an emotional black hole that festers into the urge for revenge. His opportunity comes when an Irish TV program called Truth and Reconciliation (borrowing a page from the South African commission of the same name) offers the two a chance to meet on camera in hopes of a reconciliation.

Joe Griffen (James Nesbitt, left) confronts Alistair Little (Liam Neeson) over the event that has defined their lives.

Now middle-aged, the two men have had decades to ponder the consequences of that fateful night. Leeson’s portrayal of Little shows incredible subtlety and power, creating a true-to-life character who has had plenty of time—including 12 years in prison—to learn from his brutal act. Of the two, he is the most anxious for a reconciliation of some kind. Meanwhile, Griffen sees the filmed meeting as the perfect opportunity for revenge. Nesbitt is at the height of his powers here—Griffen rides a roller coaster of emotions, flicking between twitchy nervousness, pouring on the Irish charm with a female TV intern, and barely suppressed snarling rage.

Director Hirschbiegel makes great use of irony and mirroring and highly effective cinematic technique that puts you right inside the characters’ experience. When the teenaged Little is preparing for the killing, he grooms himself in front of a mirror. The film then makes use of sound to emphasize his stress-induced shallow breathing and pounding heartbeat, showing the raw terror he’s feeling despite his bravado. Then, 30 years later when Griffen is preparing for his TV appearance, he goes through an almost identical sequence: the grooming before a mirror, the exaggerated breathing, the stark terror of what he is about to do.

Joe Griffen (James Nesbitt) is wracked by contradictory emotions on the path to reconciliation.

The irony lies in the fact that while Little has tried to purge himself of the thinking that led him to commit a murder, Griffen has gradually allowed himself to be overcome by it. He has become his shadow side—the thing he hates. A similar theme was played out in Casualties of War, where Sean Penn’s platoon sergeant has allowed the atrocities of the Vietnam War to corrupt him while Michael J. Fox’s ‘grunt’ remains true to his principles in the midst of sheer hell.

But the real genius of Five Minutes of Heaven is that it resists any easy resolution. Real life is messy and all the more so when violence enters the picture. Little’s single act has shattered Griffen’s entire family—his father dies within six months of the killing, his mother dies later a broken, howling banshee unwilling to let him off the hook despite his innocence. Even though he now has a wife and two beautiful young daughters, Griffen is unable to connect emotionally with them, still fixated at the moment of his brother’s brutal murder. This is the reality of violence. Its victims don’t just get up, brush themselves off, and ‘get on with life.’ The ripple effect spreads across generations.

And like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, there is no easy path to laying this past to rest. McDonagh seems to be making a comment about the current state of media and its infatuation with ‘reality TV’ by having Little and Griffen attempt a meeting on a TV set rather than a counsellor’s office. That anyone would consider turning life-shattering events like this into ‘infotainment’ is the depth of absurdity. That some TV producer could delude himself into thinking that any ‘reconciliation’ could occur within the frame of a one-hour program slot is nothing more than demented surrealism.

Liam Neeson was perfectly cast for the role of guilt-ridden Alistair Little; his subtlety and power as an actor avoided over-the-top histrionics.

As a plot device however the TV show provides Alistair Little an opportunity to deliver a monologue worthy of Nelson Mandela about what he’s learned of how people are drawn into the vortex of violence: “The thing you have to remember; what you have to understand, is the mindset. Once you have signed up to terror, and joined the organization, the group, your mind closes right down. It becomes only our story that matters, not their story—the Catholics. It’s only ‘my’ people that are being killed, and here suffering and that need looking after. Catholics being killed? Doesn’t enter your head.” There are echoes of Martin Luther King Jr.’s statement above in Little’s conclusion, delivered with Neeson’s understated intensity: “What society must do is to stop people getting to the point where they join the group. Because when you get to that point it’s too late. No one’s gonna stop you. No one’s gonna change your mind. And once you’re in, you will do anything. You will kill anyone on the other side, because it’s right to do it. Once your man has joined the group, society has lost him. And what he needs to hear are voices on his own side, stopping him before he goes in.” ( Wise words.

Without spoiling anything more in this excellent film, I will say that a kind of personal redemption does occur for both characters. But Hirschbiegel avoids fake emotional resolution by keeping it gritty and real, so that when it does come, it’s thoroughly believable and therefore so much more satisfying. Five Minutes of Heaven articulates as well as any film I’ve ever seen the ‘collateral damage’ of violence. It’s a true cinematic achievement—art for social justice—that deserves wide attention.

About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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