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Non-Review Review: Route Irish

Ken Loach’s Route Irish is a fascinating little thriller, even if it does ultimately feel quite shallow and end in a rather unsatisfactory manner. Indeed, it’s very hard to construct a mystery where the audience already knows the answer, based on experience within the genre. Framed as an investigation into the death of a contractor in Iraq, the culprits behind the assassination are obvious from the moment the film starts rolling, which means that none of the twists and turns pack any punch – because we already know the answer. However, Loach is a director skilled at offering atmosphere and mood, and he makes a valiant effort to overcome the script’s rather obvious deficiencies.

Paying the ferryman...

It’s the smaller pieces of Route Irish that work, like the opening sequence with old friends Fergus and Frankie playing on a Liverpool ferry, wondering what they want to see of the outside world. It’s a cruel irony that suggests the only way the boys will ever leave Liverpool is as soldiers sent to foreign wars, and it’s a fitting indictment of a depressing system – where, as in America, the army aggressively recruits from those without any social advantages, and where the options are most restricted. There’s a lovely moment early in the film where Fergus confronts a suit at his friend’s funeral, accusing him of “recruiting people at Frankie’s funeral.” It’s a nice moment that illustrates the predatory nature of such recruitment.

However, the rest of the movie doesn’t move quite so smoothly. As Fergus attempts to dig into the circumstances surrounding the death of Frankie, the revelations and developments are entirely predictable. When an executive at the funeral makes some excuse about why they want a phone in Frankie’s possession, you know immediately that there’s something important on that phone. There turns out to be some rather sinister goings-on in Iraq, and some secrets that need to be protected.

It's a warzone out there...

However, there feels like something of a logical disconnect. The script tells us little of Fergus, and he never feels like a character. What little information we do get is provided by clunky exposition at Frankie’s funeral, and there’s never any hint of complexity to the central character. As Fergus makes his back-water enquiries and digs up more and more dirt, one wonders why he seems so surprised. Fergus, after all, lived through the War. He recruited Frankie. He uses methods throughout the film, and talks about experiences, that make the stomach curl.

As viewers, we are disgusted and horrified by some of his tales, even if news releases have taught us not to be surprised. However, Fergus always seems behind the curve on these revelations. If the character lived in this world, one would imagine that he’d pick up the pieces at least as fast as a viewer at home, but instead he seems more surprised by the antics of fellow soldiers at every turn, despite the fact he admits to seeing that sort of thing before. Hell, he talks about Americans playing loud music from their tanks, a piece of fact that actually developed from Apocalypse Now, an acknowledgement that all of this is stuff that we’ve seen before.

Touching...

However, while the larger plot doesn’t really work, it’s the smaller scenes that hold the film together – even the dialogue between characters. While the expansion of private contractors into the theatre of warfare is hardly news, with any number of disturbing rumours and facts about Blackwater emerging, it still feels unsettling to hear them articulated. There’s a stunning moment, over a cup of coffee, where an executive speaks of “pastures new”, suggesting the organisation could expand to tackle “somewhere as big as Darfur.” the fact that this observation is made in polite conversation makes it feel even more uncomfortable.

Loach does a great job with the material. The story is (mostly) confined to Liverpool, with Fergus organising his enquiries without a passport. This gives the thriller a nice “slow boil”quality, but it does also lead to a lot of exposition and awkward plotting as we follow an investigation into a murder in the Middle East conducted from the United Kingdom. However, Loach does a stunning job of  making the film look beautiful, and his considered shots and naturalistic style go a long way towards making up for the problems with the script.

Courage under fire...

It’s hard to fault Mark Womack or any of the other actors in the film, as they aren’t given a lot to work with. None of the characters feel developed or three-dimensional, each conforming pretty rigidly to a particular archetype. Comedian John Bishop does a nice job playing Frankie in some post-mortem flashbacks, but they ultimately feel a little random and disjointed. Ironically, we reach the end of the movie knowing the deceased Frankie far better than we know Fergus.

Route Irish is a solidly made film, but one with significant and central flaws. The biggest problem is that it isn’t nearly as complex as it seems to think it is. The Iraq War is a morally complex political quagmire that has left sizeable scars on an entire generation, and it seems almost trite to deal with it in the sort of simplistic archetypes suggested here. It’s the moments of nuance between characters that add flesh to the fairly brittle bones, but sadly not nearly enough.

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