Veronica Guerin (2003)


Colin Farrell makes a brief, splashy appearance in Veronica Guerin. A spiderweb tat running down his neck, his face variously pierced, he’s Spanky McSpank, watching a football game on a storefront television when he’s approached by Veronica (Cate Blanchett). A reporter hot on the trail of a drug dealer story, she asks him a few questions: he’s so convenient, so obvious, it’s hard not to. He gives up the requisite info, eyes her up and down and tried to get her to go for a drink. Nothing doing: she’s already headed to her next scene.

Such moments — illustrating Veronica’s earnest incentive while undermining her hard work with crazily implausible coincidences — structure Joel Schumacher’s well-intentioned movie (not so coincidentally, he’s made a couple of movies with Farrell, Tigerland and Phone Booth). Revered in her native Ireland, the titular character was murdered in 1996 because she was nosing around in Dublin’s rampant and lucrative heroin scene. (According to the film, everyone in Ireland recalls where they were when they heard news of her execution, in her car, stopped at an intersection.) An object lesson in dogged perseverance, she was a loving mum, adored daughter, and charming, if usually distracted, wife. She was also, according to the movie, rather prone to charge in where other mortals did not, asking questions of known murderers and dealers, pushing investigations that the cops let slip.

For all these reasons, it’s good to commemorate her, introduce her to movie-going populations unfamiliar with her story, and hold her up as a model for good intentions and determination. Veronica Guerin, however, comes off looking stymied by its subject, caught between showing her furious, near-mythic energy and rendering her actual vulnerability. This last is plainly underlined by her murder — perhaps especially that it took place in broad daylight, amid a flock of regular people’s vehicles, when a pair of black-helmeted bikers ride up and blast her through the driver’s side window, then speed away, feeling quite impervious to repercussion. They are eventually found and convicted, the film reports in its final epigraphs, as if to reassure viewers that such actions lead to sorrow and suffering.

The movie is indeed interested in sorrow and suffering, for that is what makes Veronica such a compelling figure (that, and Blanchett’s performance, less showy and more complex than her supporting roles of late). She suffers because she must, because no one else will do what she does. “I don’t want to do it, I have to do it,” she insists. The trailer for Veronica Guerin hammers this line to accentuate Veronica’s sense of conviction — that it is her mission to pursue the villains even when they threatened her and her family, even when the cops and her sources advise that maybe she isn’t quite equipped to handle her adversaries. The film makes her seem a crusader without much experience in this particular arena, despite her reputation for uncovering Church scandals; she may be swept up by her fame or by her dedication to doing the right thing. By the time she’s doing tv interviews to explain why she persists after she’s been attacked by her subjects, it’s fairly clear that she’s committed to an abstract idea of this right thing.

Veronica is moved to this obligation when, at film’s start, she takes a ride into a Dublin project and see little children playing with discarded needles. Trying to interview young addicts, she’s struck (as the camera indicates), by their death-warmed-over appearances and offers to sell themselves for hits, and returns to her posh suburban kitchen, where she informs her indefatigably supportive husband Terry (Darragh Kelly) that someone needs to be “writing about it.”

She begins by tapping an informant with whom she’s worked before (on other crime stories for the Sunday Independent), Coach Traynor (Ciarán Hinds). She congratulate shim for knowing “how to succeed in business without any customers” — his car sales and prostitution business can’t explain the kind of money he has, much less the non-hours he puts in. They share an odd but telling relationship, in that each is able to believe the other is titillated by the other, as they flirt overtly, their bodies grazing against each other as they smoke and drink in noisy pubs. Here you can see that Veronica, while insistently righteous, may have other investments, in the rush of consorting with dangerous types, in feeling seductive among them. She also doesn’t see what is made obvious to you, that Coach is as treacherous as a minor frustrated player can be.

She emphatically does not get this rush when she tackles Coach’s boss, John Gilligan (Gerard McSorley). By the time she tracks him down, you’ve already seen him behave badly — beating on his minions, losing his temper in front of the horsey set he wants to impress with his “legitimacy” — but Veronica buzzes her shiny red car up his driveway and asks straight-up how he’s accumulated his riches with no clear tax records. Gilligan has no compunction about calling her the c-word repeatedly as he punches and kicks into broken-bodied submission. At this point, she does what she must: she gets back in her little red car and drives away. The cramped, from-the-car-hood shot of her in the driver’s seat, huddled and bloodied, suggests that she may be haunted by this moment, the confrontation with sheer rage and prerogative, the violence of a calculating, self-preserving, utterly conscienceless man.

The lingering image of Veronica’s pounded face, especially as it might be compared to the smiling, golden-girlish image that adorns city buses to advertise her column, underlines the extent of her commitment to moral duty, beyond enjoying glories bestowed on the “star reporter.” At the same time, the film makes her jealous fellow reporters look small, when they gloat at her misfortune, suggesting that she might learn a lesson, learn how to write, and that she’s got balls she shouldn’t have.

But the fetishizing of her injuries — on tv within the film, as sensationalism, but also by the film itself — is also slightly creepy: in addition to this brutal beating, she’s shot in the leg (the wound red and gaping for the camera, again, for emphasis), and of course, she’s shot dead at film’s beginning and again, for emphasis, at film’s end. Here her suffering is awful and public, not only for the drivers who witness the attack, but also for a cop-friend she’s just called on her cell — he hears her scream and the line go dead, and his stricken face mirrors, presumably, yours.

The camera hovers over her car, like her own rising spirit, now handed over to you, through the convenient sunroof, beholding the splayed limbs and exit wounds, insisting that you appreciate the pain and the beauty of her martyrdom. Guerin’s story is surely compelling in itself. Such flourishes, distrusting viewers to “get it,” only detract from that story.