Secret's out -- but the biggest surprise in 'Crying Game' is not what you think

February 28, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Few movies have ignited the public imagination like Neil Jordan's "The Crying Game." Even today, a full three months after its release and more than a week after the Academy of Motion Pictures effectively outed its co-star with a nomination for a role in a gender different from the one in which he begins the movie, a movie critic gets calls.

"Steve, I've got big money riding on this. This Jaye Davidson? Man or woman?"

He is told.

"Damn! Now I've got to eat crow and write a check!"

But perhaps that question -- which I've heard at least 50 times, and twice during the writing of this piece! -- obscures some of the more interesting ideas in "The Crying Game," although it does get at the movie's chief conundrum: Is this a movie with a gimmick attached or a gimmick with a movie attached?

Alas, I am inclining toward the latter interpretation. In some sense, the "gimmick" is too powerful for a rather mundane story because it all but obliterates the plot. The only thing people are left with is that haunting image as Fergus reaches for Dil, and the camera wanders down Dil's lithe body and the reality of Dil is explosively delivered.

I revisited the film in a crowded theater in Laurel over the weekend; at that moment, it's as if someone had sucked the air from the place. One hears a massive intake of breath, followed by a few cynical, booming, embarrassed laughs and the audience doesn't truly settle down for 10 minutes, by which time it has lost contact with the machinations of the plot and may have some difficulties getting back into the story.

Seen again, knowing in advance "the twist," "The Crying Game" assumes a number of new meanings. One notices things one hasn't before. The primary one is the movie's essential cheesiness, which extends to such tired Hollywood signatures as trying to achieve a movie-record crossover by basing the film on a pop song, "The Crying Game," and having Dil lip-sync it.

This is something they used to do back in the great days of Elvis, but am I the first to note that the song "The Crying Game" ain't no "Heartbreak Hotel"? This is a truly lousy song. One of those dreary, self-pity ing things that is over-orchestrated and utterly banal, it, in a way, expresses perfectly the lie at the heart of the movie: that is, that "The Crying Game" seems to have a political-historical meaning.

It's an evocative phrase to describe something that is bitter and futile, that breeds tears and tragedy, yet has a certain repetitive sameness to it, like a war; specifically, the insane rondelet of violence that has obtained in Northern Ireland since the '50s, with IRA Catholics having at UDA Protestants and vice versa in all the forms of urban combat, with the poor oafish Brits in between.

But that's not what the movie is about at all, and indeed it's hardly interested in the politics of the situation (there are no Protestants). Rather, it's about a far more icky and intimate subject; it seems to be about the curious quality of love to cross stereotypical barriers, which it evokes sentimentally and about which it is never rigorous. But is it really?

Surely the strangest aspect of the film is the character of its leading character. Allow me to surprise you by pointing out that this is not Dil, about whom everyone is talking, but the far more interesting Fergus. In fact, there's a bigger secret about Fergus than about Dil, so you'd better stop reading if you haven't seen the movie.

First, Fergus is brilliantly performed by Irish actor Stephen Rea. He's a crippled, saddened man whose essential kindness keeps getting in the way of his duty. And when the inevitable violence breaks out, and when he does his bit, he is profoundly affected. Rea gets it perfectly: his regret, his guilt over the pain he's caused, his wary, post-traumatic-stress body carriage.

But I have one question: What on earth is this guy doing in the IRA? Terrorism would not seem to be a good career choice for a sensitive, brooding Irish poet kind of guy. Fergus represents a personality type that has been clinically identified and is about as far removed from heroic dynamism as can be imagined. He's pure passive-aggressive, a personality disorder that was uncovered by Army psychiatrists evaluating soldiers' performances during World War II.

The Army shrinks were stunned to discover that there was always a certain proportion of men who, though they paid lip service to the goals of the unit and the nation, seemed almost completely incapable of acting when action was necessary.

One psychiatrist comments: "Behaviorally, the passive-aggressive personality can be identified by a stubborn resistance to the fulfillment of expectations. Passive-aggressive individuals can be seen as pouting and they are generally viewed by others as procrastinators."

Another has described the classic P-A as "those who seek out novel and stimulating situations in impulsive ways while remaining unpredictable."

Fergus, have these shrinks got your number or what?

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