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?
As such, Fergus joins some of the great passive-aggressives in literature. The most famous, of course, was Hamlet.
In "The Friendly Shakespeare," author Norrie Epstein gives this thumbnail sketch of the Prince of Denmark: "He's a sensitive poet who is unable to act, yet he manages in one way or another to kill almost everyone in the play."
That's another of Fergus' gifts: He means no harm, he is "kind" by nature (as a banal parable repeated twice in the film makes clear), yet nearly everyone with whom he makes an allegiance or in whose name he takes up a responsibility ends up dead.
He manages to remain blissfully unaware of his responsibility for these dark and bloody deeds and is even granted at the conclusion what I will argue is a sublimely happy ending. In fact, be warned that at the conclusion of this piece, I'm going to reveal the true secret of "The Crying Game," but it's not the one you think it is.
Fergus is assigned to an IRA kidnap detail. Working with some other terrorists, he kidnaps a British soldier (or possibly undercover agent; I happened to notice a shoulder holster under the jacket which is otherwise unexplained), a lummox of a black trooper called Jody (played by the consummate American actor Forest Whitaker).
What kind of terrorist is Fergus anyway, the Robert Bly kind? Instead of loathing his sworn national enemy, he utterly surrenders his professionalism and bonds with the hostage. This is the exact opposite of the famous Stockholm syndrome, in which hostages bond with captors; it's a first, in fact. In a certain way it might be said that Jody is seducing the somewhat confused Fergus, who responds without knowing why.
The order comes: Jody must be blasted, and Fergus gets the job, which, being the true passive-aggressive, he utterly botches.
If there's any sad historical truth of the past 20 years, it's that terrorists never have crises of conscience. The terrorist's victory over himself is his victory over conscience. That's why they can put a bomb on a plane and walk away feeling holy.
Wasn't Fergus trained? How did he slip through the indoctrination? What on earth is he doing there? And of course, his reluctance plays out in action as brutal inefficiency: Though he does manage to achieve Jody's death, it's far more wretched and painful than the merciful bullet behind the ear the captive deserved. The British attack (a convenience a little too convenient) and, true passive-aggressive, Fergus runs away.
He ends up -- again the level of convenience is grotesquely high -- under a pseudonym in London, working on a construction crew. Having heard of Dil from Jody, he looks her up, and is beguiled. (Note: Last chance to check out now if you don't know Dil's "secret.")
He begins a typically passive-aggressive courtship in which he doesn't exactly chase her, but just puts himself in her way and then looks simperingly at her. But she responds to him, and he responds to her. Of course when the camera reveals that she's a man, which means that she and Jody were gay lovers, Fergus is appalled and repulsed, having, by this time, kissed her many a time and been intimate. (Another cavil: the "transvestite" lifestyle, as Dil lives, is not necessarily homosexual, but writer-director Neil Jordan doesn't seem to know that.)
Of course by now, though he's revolted, Fergus is in love with Dil. Thus, when his IRA comrades re-establish contact with him and order him to assassinate a British judge (whose true crime appears to be that he has a young and bosomy mistress; that is, that he's heterosexual), they use a threat to Dil as leverage to compel his obedience. Of course, Fergus attempts to protect her; of course, he fails, betraying both her and the IRA. That's his passive aggressiveness at its highest pitch.
In the end, the only dynamic hero of the piece is Dil, the man pretending to be the woman. The villain is Jude (Judas), played brilliantly by Miranda Richardson, who is a woman pretending to be a man, being able to shoot and beat with the best of them. The two of them face each other in the best John-Wayne style, over blazing six guns (actually, Dil has a blazing nine-gun). Meanwhile, obedient to his nature, Fergus is completely incompetent.
The movie ends with a perfect image: The anti-heroic Fergus in prison, sealed off from Dil who has come to visit him, yet sublimely happy. He's truly the man who has it all.
For the true revelation of "The Crying Game" isn't Dil's sex, but Fergus' homosexuality. It's why he responded to both Jody and Dil. It's why, on making his discovery, he couldn't abandon Dil; he was in love with him. But he cannot face it, or the carnal reality of it. He's the most asexual hero in movie history.
That plastic window between him and Dil also separates him from his own sexuality, and frees him from confronting it. He's able to love Dil but not face the inevitable consequences. He's in the perfect paradise for the passive-aggressive -- prison, where there are no expectations and no sense of time, no urgency.
"The Crying Game" should have been called "The Smiling Game." It's the happiest movie ever made.