A disheveled and dispirited man, Jimmy Cullen (Aaron Monaghan), returns to his one-horse hometown in Co. Cavan to seek whatever forgiveness he can for a litany of wrongdoings before killing himself.
Philip Doherty’s debut feature, Redemption of a Rogue, in its title and tone, is not nearly as bleak as the summation above may suggest.
Jimmy’s fictional hometown of Ballylough, the site of his major and minor misdeeds, is populated by walking metaphors and sight gags. The buoyant script throws out jokes every other line, while the camera shoots jokes every other frame.
A whirlwind montage at the start of the film leaves Jimmy on the outskirts of town. Before the dreaded walk home he stops to look over the local football pitch, the site of just one of his many past sins.
In the first of many sequences like it. The action cuts to Ciné film footage of Jimmy failing to make a crucial save in the big championship game. “Oh my god, the stupid bollocks let it in,” exclaims an imagined commentator. Even in his memories, people have an axe to grind with Jimmy.
Everyone in town regards Jimmy with the same level of disdain. A title card flashes “THE CONDEMNED” as he takes a long, shameful walk through the streets of the town he left behind. People stop in the street to ridicule him. A band playing in a shop window breaks mid-tune to stare Jimmy down.
Doherty mixes metaphors and jokes in the film’s visual stylings. Most music is performed in diegesis with lyrics directly relating to Jimmy’s situation. Characters appear as apparitions or larger-than-life versions of themselves in the alleyways and avenues of town.
For Jimmy, there is no escape from his dark past, or indeed, the torment of his present circumstances.
At home Jimmy is reunited with his brother Damien (Kieran Roche). A clever sequence sees Jimmy go in for an elbow-grabbing attempt at a hug before Damien headbutts him. In a number of cuts the camera shows us an increasingly inelegant and embarrassing fight scene between the two.
Eventually, tired out and bloodied, the brothers head inside to catch up. A series of further misfortunes take place in rapid succession.
The Cullens’ father dies within minutes of Jimmy’s arrival, then exaggerated Old Hollywood rain starts pouring and won’t stop. A stipulation in their father’s will prevents the Cullen brothers from burying the body until the rain lets up. Jimmy’s return has brought a biblical reckoning to Ballylough.
Jimmy attempts to reconcile with his ex-girlfriend Patricia (Liz Fitzgibbon) but she rebukes him in no uncertain terms. Jimmy tries to hang himself in a barn but can’t go through with it when an audience of children appear at the door. In the local pub, a blues musician played by Pat McCabe seems to sing to Jimmy about his own life and failings.
Later that night another singer, Masha (Aisling O’Mara) strikes up a conversation with Jimmy. Like Jimmy she too is a pariah, a “wayward woman” that the town has made a villain of. Jimmy saw her carted off by the local police earlier in the film.
A scene that sees the pair hot-wire a car to avoid walking home in the rain features a fairly clunky monologue from Jimmy about his dislike of sexual intercourse. Doherty’s writing is strained here, up to this point metaphor and comedy have meshed well, but this sequence plays like a sermon written up in Comic Sans.
Happily, the gradual building of Masha and Jimmy’s relationship and the revelations that come with it are handled with more care. Monaghan and O’Mara have believable chemistry, with Monaghan moving toward a more naturalistic acting style as his guard lowers.
The rain keeps pouring into the back half of the film and as gutters and drains overflow in the streets of Ballylough, so do the plot points. Increasingly, the visual quirks that raised a smile earlier in the film begin to take on a sinister quality.
Jimmy’s imagination begins to encroach on the real world and the lines between reality and fantasy are blurred beyond recognition.
Director-of-photography Burschi Wojnar handles these later sequences with a keen eye and, like the film’s writing, there is a near-seamless movement between tones.
There’s always a sliver of humour in Doherty’s approach to the film. Even its most dramatic material leaves room for a gag. It’s never incoherent but it can stretch the dialogue to breaking point at times.
A line of dialogue later in the film describes a near-death experience as “luminous darkness”. It’s a fitting description for Doherty’s debut feature as well. Murky in places but never far from light relief.
Redemption of a Rogue was recently screened online as part of Cork International Film Festival’s Film Club series. A wider release is forthcoming.