The feature film directorial debut by Sean (son of Pierce) Brosnan is an impressively accomplished slice of Southern Gothic, riffing off classics of the genre like Cape Fear and Night of the Hunter, with an impressively uncompromising take on its tale of violence, vengeance and redemption. It’s also a deeply frustrating work that never quite manages to be as good as it should be. You suspect that Brosnan wanted to make something epic – an emotional, poetic study of two men on a course of self destruction that could be up there with the best of these stories. but he doesn’t quite get there, as the story deteriorates in the second half of the film and characters remain frustratingly one-dimensional. This is a good film, but you feel like it should have been a great film, and that is annoying.
In a black and white opening that both sets the pre-credit scene firmly in the past and announces that this will be a film with style to spare, we see twelve-year-old Asher and his older brother Chester visiting teenage girl Nana – the plan being to initiate Asher into sex, if only as a voyeur. But when their father Ivan shows up, he beats Chester to death and deafens Asher in a jealous rage.
Cut to the modern day (and colour), and when the deaf-mute (it’s unclear why a twelve-year-old who has gone deaf would lose his ability to speak, but there you have it) Asher finds out that Ivan has been released early from prison due to overcrowding, he does what he has to do – bulks up, saws off a shotgun and sets out to kill his errant father. But if you are going to kill someone, then you should probably check that they are dead. Asher doesn’t, and soon the enraged Ivan is out for revenge.
As a study in the pointlessness of vengeance, My Father Die is pretty interesting. It’s never quite clear if Asher’s fears about his father coming back are valid – while daddy is certainly not a reformed character (he kills a gay cop who is trying to pick him up on his first night out), there’s no evidence that he is actually looking to finish what he started with his family, and you could say that by proactively trying to defend those he loves – the grown up Nana mainly – Asher actually brings all this on himself and others. As both men seek revenge against each other, you are left wondering just where this cycle of violence that neither will walk away from is taking them.
Unfortunately, such meditations get rather buried as the film goes on and Brosnan piles on admittedly impressive but inevitably cluttered action scenes and becomes too in love with his own stylistic touches. He also rather weakens the duality aspect of the feud by presenting Nana as a kick-ass, gun-toting action heroine – this might be on trend and even make a certain narrative sense, but it is out of place in a film that is very much about two individuals, and it takes away from the sense of futility that they are locked into. And there is a growing disconnect from events as the film becomes more obsessed with violent spectacle than with the rather more intimate and so more painful aggression that was so effective earlier on. What’s more, there’s a sense of ‘shock for shock sake’ in a scene involving a gimp-masked, self-harming, masturbating reverend that makes what should be a powerfully transgressive moment fall oddly flat.
But the early violence and unexpected sexual frankness (this is a film that has 1970s exploitation levels of nudity) that appears earlier is effectively startling, visceral and savage. The amount of sexual violence in the film – alongside words like ‘nigger’ and ‘retard’ being spat out with abandon – will certainly make this a challenging proposition for more delicate viewers, and Brosnan should be applauded for not holding back in his handling of the film’s more difficult aspects. This is a deliberately ugly story, told about ugly things, and many a director might have baulked at being so relentless in exposing that ugliness.
And make no mistake – while the story goes off the boil somewhat as the film progresses, this is a powerful debut, showing a director who is confident and talented. The car chases and action sequences might dilute the intensity, but as stand-alone moments, they are skillfully handled – you could easily see Brosnan following his father into the Bond franchise, given these as a calling card. And he is certainly helped by impressive performances, particularly from ex-boxer gary Stretch as Ivan, who says little but exudes a sense of menace and psychosis that almost cracks the screen with its intensity. Joe Anderson as Asher does well too in a silent role (the voice over that internalises his thoughts is the voice of his child self, the last time he had a voice). His character is hard to sympathise with and remains oddly under-developed, but he at least brings a sense of desperation to what would always be a difficult role.
It’s because this film is so good that it frustrates. If My Father Die was a lesser work, the narrative break down wouldn’t matter so much. But here, it feels like a wasted opportunity to create a Southern Gothic to sit with the very best, both cinematic and literary. But I’m interested to see where Brosnan goes from here – given a tighter story, he might yet make a modern classic.