Odd couples have become a fixture of Irish cinema in recent times. Handsome Devil, Tomato Red, A Date for Mad Mary and many other films have featured unlikely pairings at the centre of their narratives.
The Drummer and the Keeper also offers an odd couple, as well as another feature of the recent Irish cinema: a focus on mental health.
Nick Kelly’s debut feature has a very literal title. The Drummer and the Keeper concerns Gabriel (Dermot Murphy) a drummer with bipolar disorder whose behaviour is becoming increasingly destructive.
Gabriel’s therapist, Dr Flahavan, suggests that he attend a mixed-ability football game as a form of therapy. Gabriel is reluctant to do so, but goes along with the treatment to appease his bandmates.
At football practice Gabriel meets the titular keeper, Christopher (Jacob McCarthy), who has Asperger’s syndrome and appears single-minded in his quest to become a professional goalkeeper.
Christopher’s dedication and Gabriel’s devil-may-care attitude make them fast enemies on the pitch, but, as is the case with buddy pictures, this uneasiness soon gives way to an unexpected friendship.
Much like Christopher and goalkeeping, Gabriel is fixated on becoming a professional musician. This desire manifests itself through hallucinations. Gabriel is convinced that an established pop star is attending his shows.
The Drummer and the Keeper impresses with the strength of its visuals from moment one. Kelly’s ability to visualise Gabriel’s mental health through cinematic conventions like point-of-view shots and match cuts helps the audience identify with a character whose actions aren’t always relatable.
These sequences are presented from Gabriel’s point of view. The camera rapid-cuts between faces in the crowd, always with heavy depth of field and strong backlighting, making the imaginary attendee appear as if she is surrounded by flames. Not just a neat visual, these scenes are also a clever way of letting us into Gabriel’s world.
Christopher’s world is harder to illustrate in such a manner. The script and McCarthy’s intonation and mannerisms do much of the characterisation. Christopher doesn’t read social cues all that well and steers conversations towards subjects he’s passionate about. His encyclopedic knowledge of football and Lego makes for some amusing interplay between himself and Gabriel, who doesn’t much care for either topic.
There’s a sweetness to Gabriel’s behaviour as we see a gradually building concern for Christopher’s well-being run up against his reputation as a bad seed. He tries to play it cool but the affection is there for the audience to see.
What binds these young men together is the directed nature of their lives. An intervention at the start of the film sees Gabriel curb the more extreme aspects of his rock-and-roll lifestyle, but his drumming suffers as a result.
Gabriel is stuck between wanting to do right by himself and do what’s right for the band. He receives contradictory orders from his bandmates, who want him to shape up but perform as well as he always has. Christopher’s life is also heavily structured and pre-defined; he has no say in his living circumstances.
The Drummer and the Keeper shows us the growing trust and reliance between Gabriel and Christopher in touching scenes of sweetness and bonding. They practice penalties together and talk about life and love. Scenes like these feed into a underlying tension in the film. We see Gabriel at his best, capable of lifting Christopher’s spirits, but we also see a dangerous side to the drummer.
The movie opens with the memorable image of Gabriel setting a couch alight on a beach. Later he lights his car, a hearse, on fire after a confrontation with his sister and bandmates. His behaviour is unpredictable and extreme and unlike Christopher, Gabriel’s anger doesn’t stop at stomping feet and shouting.
Dermot Murphy is a terrifying force of nature in these sequences. There are some wholly convincing and uncomfortable scenes of endurance drumming sessions that brought The Red Shoes to mind in their intensity and longevity. You can feel the blisters forming on Gabriel’s fingers as he tries in desperation to get back the spark.
One sequence featuring a betrayal by his bandmates and a deftly thrown microphone showcases the energy and intensity that Murphy brings to the performance. At times, the film plays out like some lost segment from The Decline of Western Civilisation Part II in its depiction of the high highs and rock-bottom lows of rock ’n’ roll. Nick Kelly’s own musical endeavours undoubtedly inform these sequences.
The narrative is such that Gabriel is a sympathetic character even when his actions are at their most extreme, as he lashes out at the world, and at Christopher in particular, in a heart-rending arson spree.
We feel for both parties in the aftermath of this sequence. The cruelty of Gabriel’s actions is intercut with visions of his pop star admirer and his mother’s coffin entering a furnace. The culmination of these flashbacks into a montage of sorts is effective and powerful.
The film moves toward a resolution that gives further meaning to the film’s title. The Drummer and the Keeper is an impressive feature debut, well-observed, earnest in its execution and filled with humanity.