Man at the Top

Boorman relies on the charisma of his film's central character to connect with an audience when Cahill's actions are bizarre or inscrutable. And the writer-director's confidence is justified. At his peak Cahill contains multitudes. He argues that he was happy in the tumult of the projects. Yet he glides through a wealthy home in a state of bliss -- pilfering goodies from the fridge and the hamper, rifling through the study, the nursery, and the bedrooms, slipping a bracelet off the arm of a matron knocked out with sleeping pills. You can tell he gets king-size kicks from tickling the lap of luxury. Boorman enhances the scene with Van Morrison singing "So Quiet in Here" ("This must be what paradise is like") on the soundtrack. He further punctuates it with elegant blackouts, while the camera moves as stealthily and fluidly as a cat burglar. The result pulls you in and out of Cahill's omnipotent dreams.

Boorman sustains his complex take on Cahill with the help of a supporting cast that to the man (and woman) can go one-on-one with Gleeson. Ball and Kennedy make up a hardheaded, handsome miniharem; Adrian Dunbar is resolute as Cahill's top lieutenant, ridding himself of the smirk he wore in comedies like Hear My Song. And Eanna McLiam is tremulously affecting as a drug-addicted pigeon dealer whom Cahill literally crucifies before he's convinced that the man is clean.

The juiciest side parts, though, belong to Sean McGinley as the last man standing from the projects, and Jon Voight as the inspector who stays on Cahill's trail. They crystallize the decadence and debasement that ensue on either side of Us against Them. McGinley starts as Cahill's semifarcical sidekick, thrilled to be of service even after the IRA kidnaps him and returns him in need of a wired jaw and a neck brace. But by the end he has raped his own daughter (in a drunken haze, he claims) and caused Cahill to overcome his personal repulsion to try to keep him out of jail. McGinley keeps astonishing you with his ability to wring rueful laughter out of his transparent weakness. In one breathtaking moment, he thanks Cahill for grievously wounding him -- a touch that epitomizes the perversity of tribal loyalty in the Cahill gang. And as Voight's thoughtful characterization suggests, Cahill's extreme tribalism catalyzes an equally dangerous countertribalism. "You're getting to be like me," Cahill tells the cop. "Trespass, harassment, intimidation, beating people up. You've had to come down to my level." Voight shows us that he knows Cahill is pushing his brass buttons -- and also that the charge is partially true.

As Cahill rankles the IRA and then tries to enlist a Loyalist terror group in one of his schemes, it's clear that Boorman is using his story to portray the Ireland of this gangster's life and time as a chaos of competing tribes. But the movie isn't primarily political. It's mythic in a vibrant, unselfconscious way. It feels fitting that Cahill's fortunes founder after he takes up art theft. Boorman is one of the few contemporary directors to prove, nearly every time out, that art isn't something you steal from the past -- it's something you must conjure afresh from the mysteries of fate and character. The General is a piece of contemporary folklore as unexpected and potent as a brand-new urban legend.

The General.
Directed and written by John Boorman, from the book by Paul Williams. Starring Brendan Gleeson, Jon Voight, Adrian Dunbar, Sean McGinley, Maria Doyle Kennedy, and Angeline Ball.

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