Between 1989 and 2003, Jim Sheridan was nominated for six Academy Awards. Three were for writing, two for directing. The last last was as the producer for a best picture nominee (In The Name of the Father).That’s an impressive career for some, and it makes curious the relative lull in his filmography since In America. The director has had three features since then: Get Rich or Die Tryin’, Brothers, and Dream House.
I have always been an In The Name of the Father fan–it was the film that sold me on Daniel Day Lewis, and I’ve always thought that the Academy’s honoring Tommy Lee Jones (for The Fugitive) over Pete Postlethwaite was regrettable.
In America has been another case entirely. It is infused with the sort and degree of earnest emotion that practically screams autobiography and reminds me why writing teachers sometimes declare a moratorium on narrative essays about deceased family members. It’s hard for even the most professional of us to distinguish between criticism of the life experience and criticism of the artistic depiction of it. While sentimentality isn’t inherently a bad thing, the cumulative effect of mournful parents, suffering (yet wise beyond their years) children, and the nobly dying neighbors is to blunt the heartstrings rather than pluck at them.
Structurally, the film’s episodic quality does little to diffuse or direct the emotional impact, depending more on repetition than development. Family patriarch Johnny (Paddy Considine) must learn to express his feelings, and his progress, or lack of it, is spotlighted by the way the family alternately indulges and challenges him. Sarah (Samantha Morton) lets him bet the rent money she’s earned as a waitress trying to win a carnival doll because she (and her daughters) sense that he needs a victory to assuage his grief, but she turns around and yells at him for an inability to talk about the infant elephant ghost in the room.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the film in retrospect is the representation of gender roles. If the story is autobiographically inspired (as the afterword suggests), then it is fascinating to contemplate the possible reasons why we get the story filtered through the perspective of adolescent girls. One could draw strong parallels as well between In America and Tyrannosaur (Considine’s own directorial debut a decade later) in the way the films, both written by men, depict male protagonists paralyzed by and of afraid of their lack of emotional control, simultaneously redeemed by and ambivalent about the faith of a good woman. Both films, tellingly, also feature children whom the adult males learn they cannot protect from the most brutal of life’s experiences, forcing the men to negotiate the mixed messages that contemporary culture gives them about masculinity.
The way In America resolves the situation that confronts its protagonist with his ultimate vulnerability to life’s circumstances feels a bit too much like a deux ex machina. Hospital bills get paid, dad pretends to see E.T., little girls’ wishes come true. Well don’t they sometimes in real life? Or must all art be hard, cynical, and unrelenting? I believe (honest!) that there are moments of grace and tenderness in even the deepest griefs, moments of respite from the Job-like suffering endured by even the most stirringly tragic families. Why then do I feel so manipulated by the film’s end? It may take me another ten years to figure out the answer to that question.