THE CRYING GAME
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed and written by Neil Jordan
With Stephen Rea, Jaye Davidson, Miranda Richardson, and Forest Whitaker.
The producers of The Crying Game have not only convinced reviewers that it is an interesting, worthy, and above all recommendable film, they have also convinced them not to give away what the film is about and to fall back instead on coy variations on the producers' own advertising tag line: "Nothing is what it seems to be." A discussion of the film's actual subject would require revealing the big plot twist that comes halfway through, and that would spoil the fun, or so it has been claimed.
Now that the Motion Picture Academy has put the surprise in jeopardy by nominating Jaye Davidson for an award as best supporting actor, and now that everyone has had a fair chance to see the movie without foreknowledge, it is finally possible to inaugurate without eloquent equivocation a discussion of the film's popular success and significance.
So the usual warnings apply, though they are offered without much conviction. I accept gladly the challenge proposed by the ads: "If you dare tell a soul what really happens, you're the Grinch to end all Grinches." Not only will I spoil the film's big surprise, I will give away a number of smaller surprises that follow. Here is the secret that dare not speak its name: there was this scorpion and this frog . . . No, that's not it. We already knew that one. I'll try again: it's a movie about a drag queen. To put it plainly, it's a fag movie for straight people. It is also, to give the ending away now, another machine for inciting an audience to cheer the killing of a woman, a new entry in the glorious line that runs from Play Misty for Me to Fatal Attraction. It's an old story: the only good woman is a dead woman. With a new twist: unless she's really a man.
When I finally got around to seeing The Crying Game, I felt betrayed. If I had been told what it was about--a drag queen, not just IRA terrorists--I would have rushed out to see it months earlier. The only kind of review that spoils a movie for me is one that raises expectations too high, and there is little danger of that here.
Director Neil Jordan relies far too much here on surprise as a means of creating interest; as a consequence, The Crying Game is remarkably dull until the laboriously prepared penis unveiling gives us a jolt. We are faced with the old question of surprise versus suspense, and Hitchcock's classic dissertation on the subject in his conversation with Truffaut is particularly relevant here. Hitchcock was explaining his decision to give away the big surprise twist in the Pierre Boileau-Thomas Narcejac novel D'entre les morts when he turned it into a movie he called Vertigo.
In Vertigo, the protagonist Scottie (James Stewart) is hired by a wealthy acquaintance to shadow and protect his melancholy, suicidal wife Madeleine, but she gets away from her guardian and leaps to her death. By then he had become obsessed with her, so when, in the second part of the film, he happens upon a shop girl named Judy Barton (Kim Novak) who looks uncannily like Madeleine he induces her to transform herself into Madeleine, to become a surrogate object of his necrophilia. In fact, Judy Barton and his Madeleine are the same person: Judy had been hired by the real Madeleine's husband to act as a stand-in so that he could kill his real wife, and then Scottie could provide a cover story explaining the murder as a suicide.
In the Boileau-Narcejac novel, the truth about Judy's identity is not revealed until the end when Scottie discovers it. In Hitchcock's film, we discover the truth immediately after Scottie's first meeting with Judy, through a shift in narrative perspective from his viewpoint to hers. Thus we know the truth, but he doesn't. To explain his decision Hitchcock invoked the most primary responses to story telling:
"I put myself in the place of a child whose mother is telling him a story. When there's a pause in her narration, the child always says, 'What comes next, mommy?' Well, I felt that the second part of the novel was written as if nothing came next, whereas in my formula, the little boy, knowing that Madeleine and Judy are the same person, would ask, 'And Stewart doesn't know, does he? What will he do when he finds out about it?'"
The Crying Game is also the story of an obsession complicated by a kind of mistaken identity. The protagonist Fergus (Stephen Rea) is assigned to guard Jody (Forest Whitaker), a black British soldier kidnapped and held hostage by his IRA unit. Fergus and his prisoner come to respect and like each other, enough to incite the jealousy of Fergus's IRA girlfriend Jude (Miranda Richardson), who displays a streak of sadistic cruelty in her treatment of Jody. Finally ordered to execute Jody, Fergus lets him get away; however, Jody is inadvertently (and ironically) killed by his would-be rescuers, an armored column of British troops who have discovered the IRA hideout. Jody is run over by a British tank, and his death is as sudden and shocking as Madeleine's in Vertigo. And so Fergus will flee to London, abandon the IRA cause, and set out to fulfill Jody's last request: that he visit Jody's "special friend," his "wife" Dil (Jaye Davidson), and look after her well-being.
Dil and her world could certainly make Fergus forget the IRA, if he hadn't already. Dil is a tall, slender mulatto (to employ a word whose recent return to respectability may be largely attributed to Jordan's films), not quite beautiful perhaps, but fascinating and seductive. She works as a hairdresser during the day and spends her evenings at the Metro, a wonderfully convivial pub where she sips margaritas, trades insults with her abusive new boyfriend, and lip-synchs a torch ballad called "The Crying Game" on its cozy stage. Fergus follows her, just as Scottie trails Madeleine in Vertigo, and like Scottie with Madeleine and then Judy, he gradually falls in love with her. Like Judy, Dil has her secret, but we will not learn that her femininity is artifice until Fergus does.
Earlier in his long talk with Truffaut, Hitchcock had offered another, even more celebrated, example to elucidate the dramaturgical distinction between surprise and suspense: Imagine two men seated at a table with a bomb under it set to explode. If we don't know the bomb is there, their innocuous conversation may seem trivial and boring. There will be a few seconds of surprise when it explodes, but no suspense. On the other hand, if we know about the bomb, the same conversation becomes electrifying, no matter how dull its content. Jordan has put a bomb under Dil's skirt, but he doesn't reveal it until the explosion. So The Crying Game is too often slack and tedious, composed "as if nothing comes next." Inversely, when there is suspense, it is absurdly pumped up; there is even a sequence of crosscutting accompanied by an up-tempo pastiche of Ravel's Bolero. And while we wait for these exaggerated thrills, we can only wonder, in a mood of resigned curiosity, where the film is heading. We can't ask, what will Fergus do when he finds out?
Well, what does Fergus do? Let me give that away too. He throws up in her bathroom sink. At this point, despite Stephen Rea's wondrously ingenuous charm, I lost all sympathy for the character. Maybe I'm old-fashioned in matters of etiquette as well as dramaturgy, but when I am a guest in somebody's house and find myself compelled to vomit, I make it a point of honor to puke in the toilet bowl, not in the wash basin, and I expect the same courtesy from my own guests. If I were Dil, I would write Fergus off as a barbaric lout, but instead she crawls after him, like Marlene Dietrich after Gary Cooper in Morocco.
And what comes next? Will Dil keep coming back for more? Will Fergus make some effort to reconcile his fascination and his revulsion? She does, and he does. Jordan has finally established the groundwork of a promising romance, but unfortunately another plot twist intervenes. Jude and another old mate from the IRA, both left for dead in Ulster, turn up with a mission for Fergus and an ultimatum. He must assassinate an English judge or else. They threaten not only Fergus's life but Dil's as well.
If I knew more about the IRA, perhaps I would find this plot mechanism plausible, but on general principles it seems foolhardy for a well-organized terrorist network to entrust such an important assignment to a disgraced, disillusioned defector. And perhaps I would consider Jordan's unfortunate decision to make his IRA terrorists complacent, sadistic nitwits politically astute. Politics aside, the better the villain, the better the picture, as Hitchcock often said. Jordan has once again chosen to reject the master's advice.
It will continue to be a hidden imperative of the plot to keep Fergus and Dil apart, as Jonathan Rosenbaum has noted, to ensure by any means necessary that their "impossible" love remains impossible. These plot contrivances also serve to relieve Fergus of almost every moral choice that might be demanded of him. It is still uncertain whether he will kill Jody when the British army does it for him. He fails to carry out his second assigned killing, but again it is chance, not choice that stops him: Dil has him literally tied up at the assigned hour.
The one choice Fergus is allowed to make is the one that will secure his final separation from Dil. When the assassination goes awry, Jude comes looking for Fergus in Dil's apartment, mad with rage and out for blood. Since Fergus is still tied to the bed, Dil must kill Jude, at once avenging her dead lover and protecting her current flame with three or four well-placed bullets. Then Fergus takes the rap (although a plea of self-defense would surely be justified). With prison bars separating Dil and Fergus, their interracial gender-bending love can remain pure and chaste--though it also remains profoundly unbalanced. Fergus remains chivalrous and uncommitted; Dil remains faithful and submissive.
I can't help feeling that this fantasy of reconciliation and love offers more to the straight white male than to the black drag queen. Reproducing one of Hollywood's most regressive patterns, The Crying Game places Dil in the classic position of the fallen woman devoting her life to a man she can't have even though it must render her sexless. And as usual, the renunciation of active sexuality is the condition a gay man must accept for tolerance and acceptance.
For Fergus Dil's love fulfills a dream of redemption. Leslie Fiedler has claimed that classic American literature returns obsessively to the story of a pure (physical but innocent) love between a white man and a colored man, as if the white man could atone in his imaginative affinities for his material mistreatment of black men and red men. The Crying Game offers the same solace and merits the ambiguous tribute Fiedler pays this myth: "Behind the white American's nightmare that some day, no longer tourist, inheritor, or liberator, he will be rejected, refused, he dreams of his acceptance at the breast he has most utterly offended. It is a dream so sentimental, so outrageous, so desperate, that it redeems our concept of boyhood from nostalgia to tragedy."
If that is the film's promise for the heterosexual man, what does it offer a woman? If, in the sexual economy of The Crying Game, a gay man has come to occupy the woman's traditional place, where do women fit in? "Women are trouble," Jody says in the second reel, and his assertion will stand as the essential statement of the film. This timeworn Hollywood shibboleth has become critically fashionable lately. This year's other critic's favorite is the revisionist western Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood's latest meditation on this theme. Twenty years ago, Eastwood's obsession with the surplus violence of the angry female and the hesitant responses of the passive male made him a pariah in critical circles. What has been "revised" since then is not Eastwood's vision, which has been admirably consistent, but the worldview of the critics: they have finally found out what working-class men have known all the time--that Clint understands women.
Jude, the only biological woman in The Crying Game, is a total bitch; not only is she nasty and crude, she is cowardly, sexually predatory, racist, and just plump enough to look ridiculous in her tight skirts. When she reappears toward the end of the film with a new hairdo and a pricey wardrobe, it is a nice little joke that she looks like a failed drag queen. She is trouble indeed, and it's hard not to feel some satisfaction when she gets what she deserves. Jody was right about her, but we should recall that he qualified his initial judgment of women: "Some kind of women [are trouble]. Dil, she's no trouble at all."
In other words, men make better women. Men have longer legs and tighter asses. They don't get periods, and they don't get pregnant. They can suck your cock and iron your shirts just as well as any woman, and they're less likely to complain about it or expect anything in return. Aside from their still necessary role in propagation, women are pretty much worthless.
A movie that presented this case might serve a useful function by clarifying the present alignment of forces in what was once called "the battle of the sexes." But in Jordan's film, the drag queen becomes simply a pawn in this game. Her presence validates a new threat heterosexual men can direct at their women: if you won't play your traditional feminine role anymore, we'll find someone who will. However, heterosexual men are not implicated in the misogyny of The Crying Game. The gay characters deliver the message. It is Jody in the beginning and Dil in the end who attack Jude, both verbally and physically; Fergus just looks bored. The battle of the sexes has been transformed into a war between women and gay men, with straight men as bemused spectators and prudent judges. The hatred of women expressed by Jody and Dil is entirely justified in context, but it is also a bit hysterical, a bit excessive, and thus it can be disavowed by the film. Finally The Crying Game lacks the courage of its misogyny.