Lenny Abrahamson’s resonant and disturbing 2012 Irish drama What Richard Did opens on a light-hearted but symbolically portentous note. The very first scene fades up to reveal three confident, jovial and clean-cut young men travelling together in a car through the streets of South Dublin. Another vehicle overtakes and cuts in front of them; the friends are in a good mood and don’t really care, but they feign indignation anyway, and remark on the infraction. “Woah, where’s the love?” says one quietly from the passenger seat.” “Yeah, somebody’s got a problem” says the titular character Richard Karlson (Jack Reynor), a good-looking young student behind the wheel.
Indeed, someone has got a problem, and it’s going to be seismic. Unfortunately, and unbeknownst to him at this stage, it will involve Richard himself. What will soon transpire is a shocking crime, the kind that leaves toxic residual effects potent enough to alter a personality and stain a life forever. With the potential to tear multiple lives and families asunder, the event will also herald a dark, insidious secret pact too, one with enormous implications for Richard’s future and those of his friends, should it ever come to light.
Based on an emotionally devastating screenplay by Malcolm Campbell, the first third of the film is paced a little on the slow side; at only 88 minutes long in total, almost 35 minutes at the beginning are taken up by routine exposition, which suggests nothing of the tonal change about to take place. (Stephen Rennick’s minimalist music score and David Grennan’s gloomy cinematography are perhaps the sole signifiers of the story’s potentially unpleasant undertones). Initially, What Richard Did is presented as a fairly formulaic coming-of-age drama (although the cast are superb, with the ensemble displaying little of the inexperience that often plaques young adult performances). Despite being prone to the expected petty jealousies and dating dramas typical of the generation, the characters are generally happy, privileged, entitled and free from both financial and familial worries.
Abrahamson skilfully creates this initial world of normality, inhabited by these young men and woman who are neither stereotypically violent nor inherently dishonest, but alas, as with most powerful cinematic drama, such an ideal social idyll is also ripe for decimation. Because the group of friends seem to have been blessed with the youthful feeling of invulnerability, when the central crime is finally committed, it’s particularly incomprehensible and perturbing as a result.
In this context, What Richard Did shares certain narrative similarities with both the BBC’s brilliant TV film In Your Dreams (we follow the developing legal case against a pleasant, quiet and extremely promising young student who may have committed a terrible crime, with the event in question examined from the perspectives of two entirely different and conflicting testimonies), and Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder, too (we witness a covert and failed murder plot, the tension increasing as the investigating police begin to gradually uncover incriminating information we are already privy to, and which the moneyed protagonist attempts to bat away, along with the force’s suspicions).
Interestingly, Abrahamson also doesn’t ask us to judge Richard for his misdeeds, nor does he attempt to moralise or manipulate our emotional response to the unfolding drama; instead, he simply presents an appalling dilemma instigated by a vicious crime, having already created well-rounded and realistic characters with a great deal to lose. He then stands back, allowing us the space to project our own moral framework and values upon the story.
After a shattering final few minutes, the film offers a very ambiguous ending, all the more disturbing for its lack of definitiveness. There is no neat resolution; this is not a story promoting comforting, simplistic notions of right and wrong, and there are no clearly delineated moral boundaries either, which is particularly unsettling when juxtaposed with the social milieu that the film’s main characters inhabit: one of intelligence, order, prestige and responsibility.
This is really what the film is essentially about: an examination of personal responsibility, both of the young men involved in the crime, and their parents too, who seem depressingly eager to keep it in family, and so coerce their children into silence and subterfuge. Considering the nature of the heinous crime that is so influential in driving the film’s narrative, the notion that a group of perfectly bright and usually compassionate young people could choose to participate in a collective deception for the sake of preserving the status quo, is perhaps the most chilling aspect of all.
With recent news that the charismatic star Reynor has been lured away from the world of Irish independent filmmaking (he has secured roles in both the latest instalment of the commercially unstoppable Transformers machine and Dreamworks’ new comedy Delivery Man), there’s a distinct possibility that Abrahamson will also follow suit; he has produced such an impressive body of work that stateside attention is now highly likely. If he does garner some offers and chooses to moonlight as an occasional journeyman in Hollywood, taking big gigs for big bucks, it could open up a new avenue of financial self-sufficiency for him, and facilitate the production of more thought-provoking regional drama like What Richard Did. If this does happen, it can only be a good thing.
The extras are good, and include a theatrical trailer, a commentary track with Abrahamson and Campbell, and interviews with the cast.