Infuriatingly erratic and hauntingly surreal, Simon Dixon’s film adaptation of Mick Donnellan’s play features the journey of two Irish mercenary soldiers in Iraq on a kidnapping operation. The opening scene of the newly acquainted pair, while darting through a desertscape at daybreak, channels a dystopian, post-apocalyptic aura. It is also agonizingly drawn out but with the right measure of balancing dialog and intrigue that suggest a rewarding payoff for the intimate and opaque set-up. The entire film would feature no more than the duo—Joe (Brian Gleeson) and Paddy (Damien Molony)—, their victim, Shatha (Sofia Boutella), a local baron’s daughter, and one extra playing the security guard keeping watch on the safehouse. Though that poor drudge is immediately dispatched in the same gruesome manner suggested from the bleak and nihilistic wartime spiels the pair exchange early. A powerful overseer known as Dave is given ample mystique via a looming offscreen presence that tantalizes without ever materliazing. He pits the pair against one another earlier, before the discovery that Shatha was the mysterious lover that inspired Paddy to go AWOL on a prior mission in the desert.
These combined elements—of the searing sun, expansive and barren vistas, confined and deserted environs—lend a fantastical component to the journey. And it is a hellish journey one turned more inward than a literal embarkment, one more tailored to blooldlust than wanderlust. It is transformative for the wrong reasons as it is awash with an obvious ritualistic rite of passage for Paddy; he hasn’t paid his dues to Dave, whatever that entails. And thus present day Mesopotamia—long believed to be the cradle of civilization—is rendered a lawless American Frontier for two Irishmen to play out their own perverse coming of age episodes and self-discovery.
Much is kept vague, perhaps too much, especially any detail pertaining to Joe’s former life. Visions and references alluding to a former lover and a past life are presented in visual and verbal expositions, but instead of proving insightful, the narrative breadcrumbs feel intrusive. Indeed, the sojourns into peacetime memories for a war-weary grunt evoke a psychological imposition on Joe’s waning resolve on his present mission. Quite how much of that is hindered by a requisite foreknowledge of the play that inspired the film or the IRA’s tiger kidnapping tactics, is up for debate. But the film undergoes a twofold adaptation journey from stage to screen; the play unfolds in an Irish bank, with identical character dynamic now transposed onto a conflict zone. Again, as much as there is to admire (an intimate chamber piece unfolding in plain sight), an equal amount (the deluge of verbal exposition delivered via shouting matches and Mexican standoffs) frustrates viewers to no end.