'Into the West' rides into myth on white horse of dreams

MOVIES

September 17, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"Into the West"

Starring Gabriel Byrne

Directed by Mike Newell

Released by Miramax

Rated PG

** 1/2

You are forgiven if you think the "West" of "Into the . . ." lies somewhere on the nether shore of the Red River as it trickles through far Texas horse country. But no. The "West" we're talking about is the west of Ireland, and it's surprising that that tiny island country is big enough to accommodate such a geographical concept as "the west" .

But the West is also metaphorical: the West in the movie is the same as the West in American movies, at least imaginatively -- it's the West of freedom and opportunity and escape from oppression, all themes in the Mike Newell film.

Newell's work, which began abrasively with an anti-capital punishment screed "Dance With a Stranger" and was followed up with an anti-feminist wallow in "The Good Father," has been drifting toward softer climes ever since. His last was the lush and lovely "Enchanted April"; now, with "Into the West," he's given over completely to fantasy.

But it's a fantasy grounded in bitter reality. Gabriel Byrne, who co-produced, plays a grim Irish "traveler" -- that is, gypsy -- who has given up the roaming ways that are his culture and settled into a slum tenement with his two boys in hopes of finding his better life. It is not going well.

But who should show up but his father and . . . a mystical white horse.

The horse will have many meanings to many people, but clearly it's a metaphorical horse, freighted with symbolism and mythological meaning. But still . . . it's a horse. The boys Ossie (Ciaran Fitzgerald) and Tito (Rory Conroy) love it, but sometimes it's no fun to have around, as when it knocks down the neighbor's wall. Eventually, of course, the authorities find out and come to take the horse away. You can't keep a horse in an apartment.

Of course the mechanics of fantasy require broadly drawn villains. In this case, it's an evil, rich horse breeder who covets the majestic animal for himself and his crooked police buddy who facilitates the removal of the animal.

But the boys, on their own, steal the animal, and head off into the West, pursued by the entire modern world and by their poor father who only wants to regain their love. He's accompanied by an ex-girlfriend who also happens to be his real-life wife (Ellen Barkin), and so you suspect that a paid vacation for the Byrnes might be a subtext, but no matter.

There's not much more to the film than that, but I think it will touch the hearts of the intelligent children for whom it is designed -- I'm thinking of horse kids who spend half their youthful lives shoveling you-know-what for a few seconds of ecstasy aboard a great steed. Their parents, if they can drag them out of the stable, won't be bored as usual. In a sense, it's a childhood fantasy given flesh and power: to ride a great animal free, leaving civilization and its discontents in your wake. Even some big boys still dream of that one.

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