Last week, Matt Singer wrote a solid Criticwire piece on spoilers and film reviews, discussing the right, or lack thereof, of readers complaining about spoilers in reviews. I don’t subscribe to the theory of spoilers because films aren’t simply a cherry-picked collection of moments: it makes no difference whether you say if Tom Cruise survives at the end of “Oblivion” compared to sharing with someone the content of his dubious opening narration (side note: you can’t spoil a Tom Cruise movie anyway). So, look, if you’re marching headfirst into a review for a movie called “What Richard Did” and you don’t want to know what Richard did, then wait for us to build a Complaint Dept. and we will forward your emails there.
What startles about “What Richard Did” isn’t the tragedy, but the mundanity of what happens. Richard (Jack Reynor) is a handsome young teenager, an alpha male on his rugby team and big brother to the local youth. In their modest Irish neighborhood, Richard carries the social capital not only of being handsome and witty, but also having free reign over his parents’ beach house. While mom is hesitant about Richard’s drunken misbehavior with his lads, his dad is entirely understanding that a boy needs a little bit of troublemaking in his life.
In some ways, that troublemaking extends to Richard’s very-public courtship of Lara (Roisin Murphy), a local high schooler who can’t help but make eyes at the confident party-starter even while attached to another boy, lanky introvert Conor (Sam Keeley). With surgical precision, Richard slings some game at her and soon they’re having picnics and snuggling. It’s impossible to ignore the boy’s charm and Reynor’s distinct, wholesome handsomeness; surely Michael Bay saw such appeal when he cast Reynor in the upcoming “Transformers” sequel. You could see this guy growing up to romance leading ladies and dodge fireballs while being pinned to girls’ locker rooms. Hey, someone check to see if this guy can sing.
Unfortunately, it’s never clear that Lara has made a clean break with Conor, and those suspicions come to a head at a tumultuous house party. Seeing what appears to be Conor making a move, a massive drunken fight erupts. Richard, not a brawler by nature, goes chest-to-chest with Conor and the two of them argue until Conor slugs him. A group of kids swarm and begin wrestling each other as Richard attempts to find his bearings, with Conor taking a rogue shot to the face. Anyone who has been in a real fight knows the chaos that fisticuffs bring, and the potential for things to escalate beyond reason: as Conor fumbles in the dark, Richard approaches and delivers a swift, drunken kick to the face. It’s the sort of blow that action heroes unrealistically shrug off in every movie you’ve ever seen. And in this case, it proves fatal.
As the news reports discuss an 18-year-old boy found dead in the aftermath of a drinking party, Richard and his closest friends convene, troubled by the truth that it was an accident. Richard himself is deeply shaken — not only that his fate may be sealed, but because it was only meant to be an accident. What’s interesting is the dynamic portrayed by Richard and Conor before the incident: neither is antagonistic towards the other, and when Lara tries to break up with Conor, it’s Richard who comes by willing to lend a hand. They all remain mates afterwards, and while Richard is constantly casting a sideways glance at his romantic competitor, they still trade beers and barbs. Even though Richard has been unnaturally cruel to Conor, there seems to be a basic understanding here. Lads before ladies, as gentlemen say.
“What Richard Did” paints an evocative portrait of guilt and mourning while also parsing the stickiest notions of guilt and innocence. Richard keeps flip-flopping on the idea of turning himself in as he learns he’s not a suspect, a wishy-washy belief that suggests nothing. It frees him, the idea of coming clean, but at the same time he understands the pain and suffering he would be causing his family and community by going away. Richard seems like he would do a lot more good out of prison than inside, particularly with the upcoming young kids he’s shepherding through school. What’s important, “What Richard Did” asks, is that we understand the difference between binary understandings of good and bad, and why it’s never as simple as making amends or admitting to an accident. Tough and unsentimental, “What Richard Did” is a superb examination of the thin line behind harmless recklessness and stark tragedy. [A-]