“The Crying Game” - Neil Jordan (1992)

Those of you familiar with my essays know that I usually like to discuss the narrative structure of a film under review, because that structure, and the way it is expressed in cinematic form, are such significant factors in film aesthetics.  Some people might think that this gives away too much of the story, but I think that knowing how a plot comes out in the end does not normally diminish one’s enjoyment of a good story.  I know how Romeo and Juliet and Citizen Kane come out, but I still enjoy seeing them again.  It is similar to the way I still like listening to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, even though I have heard it many times.  But I do make some exceptions to this practice.  This is because there are a few films that have such extravagant plot twists near the end that they offer a uniquely special experience to first-time viewers with no prior knowledge of the story.  I could mention The Usual Suspects (1995) along these lines, but the quintessential film, for me, in this category is The Crying Game (1992). 

So for the sake of those who have not yet seen The Crying Game and don’t know about its story, I will try to discuss it here without fully revealing its remarkable plot secret.  Note I am not talking here about just some mystery film having some red-herring plot elements that deliberately try to mislead the viewer with false clues and bogus suspects.  The secret in The Crying Game lies at the very soul of the tale.  Nevertheless, even if you do know about this film’s secret, the film is still very much worth seeing, and it holds up on repeated viewings.  In fact I would say that The Crying Game, secret revealed or not, is one of the greatest films ever made.

The basic narrative of The Crying Game is, itself, rather complicated, because it starts off telling one story and then makes a drastic shift in location and direction to tell another, seemingly different, story.  In fact I would say that the film actually comprises three relatively separate stories that are told sequentially but are linked thematically. This sophisticated story structure helped earn the film’s writer-director, Neil Jordan, an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.  (Jordan, by the way, is well-known for another film that he wrote and directed and that had a sophisticated narrative structure, Mona Lisa (1987)).  The Crying Game went on to earn nominations for five other Oscars (for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Film Editing), and it received seven similar nominations for BAFTA awards.  And unsurprisingly, the film was very well received by a range of top film critics [1,2,3,4,5].

The story of The Crying Game concerns the experiences of a young Irishman, Fergus (played by Stephen Rea), who is a committed member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) paramilitary terrorist group.  But the identity of Fergus goes beyond that of an IRA member, and in fact a person’s real identity, who he or she really is, is a fundamental issue of this film.  Films that pursue this existential issue of a person’s authentic identity often feature a male ingenue in the lead role.  Think, for example, of some films starring Anthony Perkins, such as On the Beach (1959), Phaedra (1962), or The Trial (1962).  Or think of some of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, like Vertigo (1958), which has been said to be Neil Jordan’s favorite movie [6].  In such films there is a man perplexed about the identity of a person he encounters, and in the pursuit of the authentic identity of that person, he comes to know more about himself.  And that is what makes these films memorable.
The Crying Game begins at a fairground where a seductive IRA member, Jude (Miranda Richardson), flirts with and lures a black British soldier, Jody (Forest Whitaker), into a secluded spot where he can be captured by other members of her IRA unit.  The IRA’s intention is to hold Jody hostage and offer him in a proposed prisoner-swap with the British Army who are holding one of the IRA’s own members.  If the British don’t agree to the swap within three days, the IRA says they will execute Jody.  During this waiting time for a British response, Jody is to be held prisoner by IRA member Fergus (Stephen Rea) in a rustic location. 

Now alone together in a secluded greenhouse, the more loquacious Jody draws the taciturn Fergus into  a conversation, and the two of them gradually get to know each other.  As they warm to each other, Jody talks about the inner nature of a person and insists that he can tell that Fergus is not basically a bad person.  In this connection he relates to Fergus the ancient fable of “The Scorpion and the Frog” [7]:

    A scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a stream and the
    scorpion asks the frog to carry him across on its back.
    The frog asks, "How do I know you won't sting me?"
    The scorpion says, "Because if I do, I will die too."
    The frog is satisfied, and they set out,
    but in midstream, the scorpion stings the frog.
    The frog feels the onset of paralysis and starts to sink,
    knowing they both will drown,
    but has just enough time to gasp, "Why?"
    Replies the scorpion: "Its my nature..."

So already the idea of one’s inner nature explicitly comes to the fore.

Jody also tells Fergus that he knows the IRA will never let him go alive, and that they will certainly kill him first.  So he shows Fergus a picture of his beloved girlfriend, Dil, and he says that after the IRA kills him, he would like Fergus to go look her up in London and look after her.
A bit later a situation arises for Jody to try to escape from Fergus.  As he runs through the woods with Fergus in close pursuit, Jody confidently yells out to his pursuer that he knows he would never shoot someone in the back.  This turns out to be true.  However, accidental circumstances associated with a British army surprise attack on the IRA hideout lead to Jody getting run over by a truck.  So Jody dies, anyway.  This is the end of the first story.

The second story shifts to London, where Fergus has fled.  He now calls himself “Jimmy”, his hair is cut shorter, and he has a job as a lowly construction worker.  Eventually, he tracks down Jody’s girlfriend Dil (Jaye Davidson), who is a vivacious young hairdresser of mixed race.  He introduces himself to her and gets his hair cut, but he doesn’t tell her about what happened to Jody, and his own part in her lover’s death.  Fergus also tracks Dil to a cocktail bar, The Metro, which she likes to frequent and which allows talented amateurs to sing songs to musical accompaniment.  On one occasion she movingly sings before a captivated bar audience the 1960's hit song “The Crying Game”, and this is one of the high points of the film.

But Fergus can see that Dil’s sensual attractiveness and natural, unguarded ebullience leaves her vulnerable to sexual bullies and predators.  So he finds himself stepping in to protect her from the thugs chasing after her.  Although Fergus may be a somewhat laconic male ingenue, he is still a tough guy and very handy with his fists. 

Eventually, after several such episodes, Dil and Fergus find themselves increasingly attracted to each other, and they finally fall passionately in love.  But Fergus still hasn’t revealed to Dil anything about his violent past and his partial culpability in Jody’s death.  And it turns out that Dil has her own significant secret, too.

Then we come to the third phase of the film, the third story segment, which I will leave for you to discover.  It does involve the IRA getting back into the picture, more killings, and more acts of deception.  In the end we can observe that Fergus has avoided carrying out two murders that he was ordered to commit and then finally confessing to a real murder that he did not commit.  But in the process he has been true to his own inner nature, and he has learned what he truly cares about.  And Dil has learned that, too.

As I mentioned, a key theme of The Crying Game is the nature of a person’s true identity.  In this film we see that there are complications associated with political, sexuality, nationality, and racial identity that can obscure from us what are the most important things about life.  So is identity what this film is ultimately about?  I would say, no.  This film is fundamentally about love.  Identity is a key, and often obscuring, instrument in our lives, but what we ultimately seek and need is love.  When we find true love, we are joining together with our beloved in accordance with our innermost nature, our innermost being.  This is what The Crying Game tells us.

To tell such a tale so that we get the message requires an outstanding script and excellent production values.  And it also requires brilliant and sensitive acting performances, which is what we get from Stephen Rea, Forest Whitaker, and especially Jaye Davidson.

Remember what this film tells us via what Fergus and Dil discovered.  Your own innermost nature is not that of the scorpion; it is that of the lover.

  1. Marjorie Baumgarten, “The Crying Game”, The Austin Chronicle, (18 December 1992).   
  2. Roger Ebert, “The Crying Game”, RogerEbert.com, (18 December 1992).   
  3. Hal Hinson, “‘The Crying Game’ (R)”, The Washington Post, (18 December 1992).   
  4. Kenneth Turan, “An Unusually Satisfying ‘Game’”, Los Angeles Times, (25 November 1992).    
  5. Richard Corliss, “Queuing For The Crying Game”, Time, (24  June 2001).   
  6. Jack Watkin, “How we made The Crying Game”, (Interviews with Neil Jordan and Miranda Richardson), The Guardian, (21 February 2017).   
  7. “The Scorpion and the Frog”, Aesop’s Fables Online, (n.d.).   

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