J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, May 06, 2013

What Richard Did: the Remorseful Rugby Player

As an alpha male, Richard Karlsen enjoys all the benefits of Ireland’s class stratification and patriarchy.  When he commits an irreversible act, it should be relatively easy for his parents to circle the wagons of privilege around him.  Is he a strictly deterministic creature or is he an independent ethical agent?  That will possibly be determined in Lenny Abrahamson’s What Richard Did (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York, hard on the heels of its screenings at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Frankly, as teenagers go, Karlsen is absolutely brimming with empathy.  Of the seniors on the rugby team, he is always the one who looks out for the new initiates.  He is also close to his parents, sparing them any brooding teen angst.  (His Swedish expat father and Irish mother are clearly loaded though, a fact that will loom over cynics’ response to the film.) 

Come autumn, Karlsen will enroll in college, but until then he idles the summer away with his mates, including his less well to do teammate Conor Harris, who is more of a frienemy.  Karlsen woos away his girlfriend Lara, which is hardly edifying, but these things happen at that age.  At least Karlsen really works for it, pulling out all the romantic stops.  Then something unpremeditated but profoundly wrong happens.

WRD is hardly Crime and Punishment, let alone the Tell-Tale Heart, but the remorseful Karlsen will be forced to wrestle with his conscience while sequestered by his parents.  Abrahamson eschews cheap theatrics at every stage, depicting Karlsen’s guilt and mounting disappointment in his own moral failings without sentiment or sensationalism.

Yet, Abrahamson falls under the sway of his lead nearly as much as the supporting characters.  In long closely observed scenes we witness his easy charm and camaraderie.  Yes, Harris brings out his petulant streak, but these are a couple of immature kids.  Indeed, the unspoken question frequently ought to be: where are all the parents?  While Abrahamson’s patience setting the scene and establishing the social dynamics between the characters is admirable, his efforts make the film top-heavy with exposition and rather repetitive carousing sequences.

Jack Reynor is about to become world famous as the co-lead of Transformers 4.  Fortunately, he is sure to get many positive notices as Karlsen before the guilt by association with Michael Bay reviews come in.  Charismatic but grounded, there is something spooky about his performance that may well evoke memories of team captains (or some such equivalent) viewers knew in high school.  Lars Mikkelsen (not Mads), also has some nicely turned moments as Karlsen’s understanding (perhaps to a fault) father, Peter.

Wisely, Abrahamson and screenwriter Martin Campbell changed the title of Kevin Powers’ source novel Bad Day in Blackrock, lest anyone confuse it with the Spencer Tracey classic. Despite the crime committed, WRD is strictly a drama, willfully avoiding any thriller trappings.  Reynor’s work is first rate throughout, but there is an abundance of slack in the early narrative.  Recommended on balance, particularly for Irish-American audiences and Swedish expat fans of Mikkelsen, What Richard Did opens this Friday (5/10) in New York at the Cinema Village.