Neil Jordan’s “The Crying Game” is about transformation above all else, how honest, self realization can create a personal metamorphosis within ourselves. Specifically, it’s about how love can act as either a blindfold, eclipsing the truth, or an unveiled curtain that sets us free.
The opening shot is a deception of sorts, as the camera glides and reveals a carnival in the distance. We see a Ferris wheel, as the camera lingers on the potentially romantic vision, with Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” playing over the soundtrack. Yet, because we’re seeing it from under a bridge, suggesting the point of view of a concealed voyeur, the image is vaguely sinister.
A date between Jody, a cricket player (Forest Whitaker) and his companion, Jude (Miranda Richardson), reveals itself to be a set-up by members of the Irish Republican Army. Jody is blindfolded and held hostage (in what appears to be a long-neglected green house) by a weary IRA member named Fergus (Stephen Rea). While the captors await the ransom money, Fergus and Jody bond during the long nights, forming an unlikely but undeniable friendship. Fergus reveals himself to be a less than diligent soldier, sympathetic to their hostage and queasy about the possibility of having to kill him. When Fergus has the opportunity to do the right thing, he botches the moment.
The story’s second act finds Fergus haunted by Jody and on the run. With Jody’s wallet and anonymity on his side, Fergus makes his way into a mysterious nightclub, compelled by the urge to protect Jody’s girlfriend, Dil (Jaye Davidson). From there, things get especially “unusual.”
When it received a wide release in the spring of 1993 (following its limited but successful late 1992 run in art house theaters), “The Crying Game” was celebrated for its “secret,” the wild and, for its time, bold second act plot twist. It was parodied in “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” and the third “Naked Gun,” and even during Billy Crystal’s Oscar ’93 opening number. I found most audiences were nice and kept it to themselves, like a secret handshake, while others couldn’t wait to give it away. Rea once appeared on the cover of Entertainment Weekly, his index finger to his lips, silently requesting, Shhhhhhh.
In truth, the big reveal is a surprise, particularly if you don’t see it coming, but the film is so much more than the “gotcha” moment that made it famous. Like the key plot twists in “Psycho,” “The Sixth Sense,” or “L.A. Confidential,” we’re startled by all we thought we knew and once everything is suddenly out in the open, need to reconsider the story. Yet, like those films, the value of “The Crying Game” is far greater than its ability to take us off guard. If you really pay attention, it’s not just one scene. It’s the film as a whole. The audience is being deceived from the very start.
The tough but fascinating first act, in which Jody seems doomed whether or not his ransom money appears, establishes all the crucial themes. As the recurring tale of “The Scorpion and the Frog” reminds us, this is about what our “nature” truly is, what roles we’re defined by and who we are when we’re finally unmasked. As one character casually considers at one point, “who knows the secrets of the human heart?”
Jordan’s straight forward, character-driven story has moments of shocking violence that come without warning. While he’s made wildly stylish films before and since “The Crying Game,” Jordan’s direction here is strictly at the service of the narrative and he stays out of the way of his actors.
Davison’s awesome, original turn is justifiably the film’s most celebrated but Rea’s performance (which, like Davison’s , was Oscar-nominated) is arguably even more laced with mystery. We don’t like Fergus at first and grow to root for the character as he eventually sees past his own politics and self-imposed identity. He’s a reminder that, when we can’t see who we truly are, we hide behind “roles” that fit us for the time being. Whitaker’s British accent is a bit much but his performance is heartbreaking. Richardson is the perfect femme fatale: sexy, smart and, in her casually sadistic way, scary. Jude is a real monster and Richardson is terrific. There’s also golden turns by Adrian Dunbar (as the repellent head of the IRA group) and Jim Broadbent (playing one of the great movie bartenders, on par with Brian Dennehy in “10” and John Heard in “After Hours”).
It could be viewed as a political metaphor, perhaps as an awakening from being poisoned by ideologies of any kind (social, militaristic, sexual or all of the above). Either way, while Jordan (who later made “Michael Collins,” a brilliant, underrated 1996 film about the establishing of the IRA) shows no love here for “the cause,” he still paints the IRA soldiers with depth. However, their bad behavior is not rewarded nor glamorized in any way.
Dil is intoxicating; we want Fergus to save her, as that’s the typical male savior role in these movies, but the opposite is true. No matter how you read the final scenes, its unquestionably Dil who saves Fergus.
The title is the name of a pop song that replays over the course of the film, but, like the story itself, is always changing its shape. As sung in the film by Kate Robbins, Dave Berry and Boy George’s gorgeous rendition, the title song transforms over the course of the film, as does everyone on screen.
None of this should work. This is, after all, the tale of a terrorist who becomes friends with his hostage, stalks his prisoner’s girlfriend, and falls in love with her. Yet, somehow, all of it does work and takes hold the way all great films do. It was ahead of its time in the early 90’s. Today, “The Crying Game” is still such a bold, surprisingly funny and stunning experience.