Ste and Weed (Les Martin and Declan Mills), are cousins and small-time criminals on temporary leave from prison. Both men have ambitions of securing a brighter future on the outside but demons from the past have other plans for them in this labour of love and feature debut from director Cathal Nally.
Be Good or Be Gone is one of those déjà-vu type of movies. A crime drama with a generous helping of comedy about a hood with a heart of gold and his struggles to show the world that he’s more than they take him for. A well-worn plotline, yes, but like Ste, Be Good or Be Gone is able to surprise from time to time.
Ste and Weed have different ambitions for their four days of freedom. Ste has family matters on his mind, while Weed is looking to feed his drug habit, despite their best intentions to keep a low profile the boys are never too far away from trouble.
Martin and Mills look good together, their physicality brings to mind a comedy duo and their onscreen chemistry is clear to see. Both show the passage of years and the hardship of prison on their faces, but their interactions are rarely downbeat. Rather, time in a jail cell has provided ample opportunity to hone quick-witted and affectionate verbal sparring skills.
Ste’s girlfriend, Dee (Jenny Lee Masterson), has stopped visiting him in prison. They have a young kid together and Ste wants to bring his family back together when he gets out of prison for real. However, many years of heartache and broken promises mean that Dee isn’t as keen to get back to playing house.
The tension for both Ste and Weed is between the lives they want and the lives they know. An early sequence sees Ste spot a stuffed toy in the window of a charity shop. The camera misdirects us by hanging on Ste admiring the dog for a moment.
Briefly, the film is beginning to resemble a sweet-natured advertisement. Ste weighs up his options for a second before stealing the dog and heading off to visit his daughter.
Ste hasn’t turned over a new leaf yet, but the ticking seconds from the point of view shot of the dog and the decision to nab it show a desire to be better. The rest of the narrative brings Ste up to the point of realising this ambition through loyalty, violence, and love.
Weed meanwhile, wants to live a life less ordinary as a fashion designer. His interest in fashion is mostly played for laughs by the film; Weed’s deep love and understanding of the current styles are set against his generally dopey demeanor.
It is a good gag but it’s also a shame that the film doesn’t run with this aspect of the character more. When Weed talks about wanting to reinvent himself as a defining force in the design world, dubbing himself Darius we can’t help but want to see more.
The cousins’ imminent return to prison isn’t the only thing that stands in the way of their dreaming and scheming. Old gangland associates and other traumatic episodes from their past lives pop up throughout the story propelling the story along with violent, foreboding energy, but also changing how the audience feels about the duo.
Les Martin co-wrote the screenplay of Be Good or Be Gone with Paul Murphy and the intention is to have the audience like Weed and Ste. They are affable guys, sometimes bad, mostly good, not evil. As such, they are reactive participants in the narrative.
In one scene, the pair act as accomplices in a hold-up, but crucially do not brutalise a shopkeeper that gets in the way of the robbery. Another scene sees the two men retaliate with ferocity after they are mugged. Any violence from Ste or Weed is justified by the film, and as such, they’re different from the other criminals we encounter in the film, even though the suspicion is that they can’t really be as innocent as they appear to be.
This characterisation is admirable conceptually. Speaking to biases, the filmmakers suggest that these men are victims of circumstance more than anything else. Violence, exploitation, and evil aren’t innate to Ste and Weed, but they are not big bad Mulholland, Shark and other gangsters encountered in the film.
Nally’s direction is generally unassuming. There’s not a lot of showiness to the camera movement and we’re generally dealing with straightforward setups. His treatment of violence is remarkable, however, instances of violence, physical or otherwise, tend to stop the film dead.
It’s an artful touch from Nally as the consequences of the boys’ criminal dealings literally encroach on their chances of moving their stories forward.
Whether or not you’ll enjoy Be Good or Be Gone depends on whether you get behind Ste and Weed, much of the supporting cast want these men to do better. We’re told that they’re good, we’re shown it as well, sometimes heavy-handedly, but because of this instance, there’s a chance of reading the characterisation as shallow.
For me, the double act managed to win me over, I believed in the cousins and rooted for them because they believed in one another.
Be Good or Be Gone has many shortcomings but the dedication of those involved is up there on the screen, presented to us with Nally’s paired back, hand on heart style. Sometimes trying is what counts, even if you’re not entirely successful.
Be Good or Be Gone recently premiered at the Dublin Underground Cinema Festival, and a general release is forthcoming.
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