Buddy Boy is a film divided against itself. Writer/director Mark Hanlon has taken great care in the crafting of his lead character, an introverted young man named Frances. Having painted this quiet boy as minutely as possible, Hanlon then blows it by surrounding this fine character with cheap caricatures straight out of the silliest Southern Gothic. The dissonance between the lead and the rest of the world he inhabits is puzzling and, ultimately, fatal. What I wanted to see was Frances spirited away from this film and placed within a narrative that deserved him, preferably something along the lines of late Bergman.
Alas, Frances (Aidan Gillen) is stuck in this story. He’s at the center of it as the caretaker for Sal (Susan Tyrell), his invalid stepmother. Sal is a shrill, drunken harridan. Because of his stepmother’s infirmity and strict rules, Frances isn’t allowed outside much, aside from work and shopping trips; consequently, he relieves his social desires via voyeurism.
On the way home from a trip to the store one night, he scares off a mugger harassing an attractive woman, and wouldn’t you know it? The woman is Gloria (Emmanuelle Seigner), who also happens to be the woman upon whom Frances has been spying. She shows her gratitude towards Frances by inviting him over for dinner, and before long, the two are romantically entangled. But the repressed Frances may not be mentally ready for a relationship, and the delicate balance in his life is upset as he tries to juggle his woman and his stepmother.
Gillen excels in his difficult role. During the course of Buddy Boy, he has to be vulnerable, dangerous, browbeaten, penitent, confused and pretty much any other emotion that could be imagined for the tamped-down soul of Frances. His work goes a long way towards validating some of the film’s more questionable impulses; it’s a shame, then, that he should be let down on two counts. He’s let down by the supporting cast (Tyrell and Mark Boone, Jr. can be excused, as they’re both talented actors only given one note to play, but Seigner’s extraordinary mangling of the English language hampers a good deal of her and Gillen’s scenes together), but more shamefully, he’s let down by Hanlon’s lack of focus.
Any film that opens with a low-angle shot of Christ on the cross, as Buddy Boy does, had better know what it’s doing. On the evidence of this, I’m not sure that Hanlon does – his utilization of religion as a motif vacillates between careful and clumsy. When dealing with Frances’s deep religious conviction or the occasional symbolic reference (there’s a couple of scenes that show him building a model ark, presumably so he can float away from the sinners), he displays confidence and control. When dealing with the cruelty and hypocrisy of the world at large, though, Hanlon seems paranoid that the viewer will miss the point, judging from the ham-fistedness of the supporting characters. It’s hard to imagine one film containing both the surprising and effective John-the-Baptist shot and Harry Groener’s over-the-top hypocrite priest, but that’s the kind of film we have with Buddy Boy.
Occasionally, the two extremes will pop up in the same scene, which makes for uncomfortable viewing. It’s rare that a film can go completely right and completely wrong simultaneously – in particular, a dinner scene between Seigner, Gillen and two of Seigner’s obnoxious friends manages to be irritating and fascinating in the same breath.
Maybe the dissonance is the point. I can see how it could serve as an externalization of the turmoil in Frances’s soul. This becomes prevalent in the film’s second half. Frances’s mind starts to play tricks on him. At first, it’s small things, like him espying Gloria eating raw meat when she had earlier introduced herself as a vegetarian. He soon sees other things, and eventually the line between the known and the unknown disappears. Just when we think it’s clear what’s real and what’s a delusion, Hanlon will wrinkle the film’s fabric a little more. (The ambiguity of the last shot is nothing if not ballsy.)
Buddy Boy is nothing is not intriguing, and Hanlon’s expressive direction is an asset. He goes heavy on the unusual angles and the shadowed lighting, giving the impression of things half-seen. Frances, as a voyeur, looks and looks, but looking is not knowing. Hanlon uses this to feed the notion of sins and secret shames. In other words, it all gets traced back to God, the ultimate unknowable.
Hanlon, though, doesn’t know when to quit. There’s a last-act revelation that exists to strengthen this idea of the unknowable (as well as offer up another Biblical reference), but it comes off badly. This is Hanlon’s muse in a nutshell – one hand takes away what the other gives. Every time Buddy Boy gets ready to break free, Hanlon cuts back to Tyrell and Boone Jr. drinking and braying. Much like Sal’s abusive treatment screws up Frances, Hanlon’s inability to moderate his taste for grotesquerie undermines his film’s soul.