Studying Movies: Boondock Saints
Studying movies helps me study and understand story telling that works and that doesn’t. Though I’m writing a novel, I believe we need to incorporate what screenwriters do into our stories for them to appeal to a modern day audience. But, that’s just me. Boondock Saints with Willem Dafoe, Sean Patrick Flanery, Norman Reedus and one of my all time favorite Scott’s Billy Connolly is a trip! Loved it for all its quirkiness and originality.
It’s a simple plot; Two Irish brothers accidentally kill some mafia thugs (who hasn’t), and then besieged by Catholic guilt (of course) turn themselves in to the authorities (classic scene) and are then released as heroes of the people and are admired by at least one (William Defoe’s character) as gifts from God. The two Irish brothers then decide, as only good Irish lads would, that what they’ve stumbled into is actually a call by God to rid the streets of evildoers. So they start knocking off mafia gang members; protecting society and doing God’s work while uttering a powerfully intoxicating family prayer. That it’s a ‘Family’ prayer is crucial – that makes it a calling of mythic proportion.
And Shepherds we shall be
For thee, my Lord, for thee.
Power hath descended forth from Thy hand
Our feet may swiftly carry out Thy commands.
So we shall flow a river forth to Thee
And teeming with souls shall it ever be.
In Nomeni Patri Et Fili Spiritus Sancti.
Now, only the last line of this prayer is actually in the Bible. The director wrote the prayer. And it worked to powerfully illustrate their oath to God. As fun as this movie is, this oath and their belief in it grounds us in their mission.
This film opens with mass in a Catholic church, where Irish American brothers Connor McManus and Murphy McManus pray while a sermon is read. The priest mentions a real-life crime victim brutally murdered in their neighborhood and how nobody did anything to stop it. As the priest begins his homily, the brothers, clad in street clothes, walk up to the altar and kiss the feet of a crucifix. At this point it’s not clear why, but then when the priest says to the congregation as the two men are leaving that they should fear not just evil but also the “indifference of good men”. Bingo! This is the ‘why’ of the story.
Then you know something is up. The entire congregation acts as if these two brothers are invisible. So, visually in the first few seconds you really get a sense of a story already in motion. You wonder why these two are invisible to the good church goers and why the priest is in collusion. You know immediately that the brothers believe they are on the mighty side of a righteous battle. So, some good story questions are planted right away.
I love, love, love Willem Dafoe in this movie. He’s weird, funny, campy and often made me wonder if he was going to break out on song or hit somebody. Now that’s a delicate balance for his considerable acting chops. Anyway, he plays the detective trying to figure out the killings of some of the city’s most hated criminals. His character is deliciously ambiguous and tugs, pulls and crashes through some stereotypical archetypes. The closer he gets to the crimes the more he begins to figure out who has committed them and he develops a healthy respect for the fighting Irish McManus brothers. Maybe it’s because I’m Irish, or that I have had uncles involved in some iffy stuff in the depression era or that I have some Irish brothers that are capable of this sort of thing, but this campy movie resonated with me. The religious references in this story provide some serious bones and legitimize the brother’s journey as warriors of God. The night they confess to the detective, these two meat packing street fighting Irish brothers impress him with their shocking grasp of foreign languages; Russian, Spanish, Gaelic and so on.
To we who grew up with the Bible it deepens the Biblical reference (very loose & literal interpretation) with the use of ‘tongues’. As the Bible teaches, “He who speaks in tongues edifies himself” – to edify means to build up or charge up much like charging up a battery, ones morals, intellect or virtue. When they spoke in those languages I got that they were lifting themselves up for the task at hand, God’s warriors, and then when they explained it in their languages to the well educated, slick and jaded, though open and hopeful detective, he understood the spiritual essence of their charge and so respected them. Maybe I got too much out of that scene, but there it is.
After they confess to the murders and are set free, the brothers, Connor and Murphy receive a vision from God (of course they did) telling them to ‘destroy all that is evil so that which is good may flourish’. Who can’t get behind two Irish renegades with God on their side cleaning up the unsafe streets for all of mankind? Obviously it requires a suspended sense of disbelief, but hey, these days so does the presidential election. These modern day, avenging Robin Hood sort of characters have what it takes to make a great story; the average Joe who can’t or won’t take the abuse any longer, gets God on his side, a priest and congregation who turn their eye so the battling heroes can do what they cannot, and a dancing singing, fighting detective who is ultimately more than sympathetic.
This story has great bones, depth, comedy, surprise, and a good use of objects that harkens to the characters back stories, like the mysterious prayer. I won’t give up the surprise end, but let’s just say I love Billy Connolly who ultimately serves as the all knowing, avenging, revenging sage.
The way they ended the movie was with various “man-on-the-street” type interviews in which various citizens reflect, “Are the Saints ultimately good, or evil?” That’s a huge story, moral, religious and ethical question. Great stories ask questions that test or challenge our boundaries whether with drama, comedy or action. In Die Hard, would you do everything John McClane did to save your loved one? In Dead Man Walking, should the murderer receive salvation? In The Full Monty; Do we have more value than our jobs? Are we only valued for what we do?
Watch Boodock Saints and let me know what you think….