Dead in the Blackwater
(Route Irish, Ken Loach, UK/France/Italy/Belgium/Spain, 2011, 109 mins)
Mercenaries, murder, torture and the Iraq War; after the whimsy of 2009’s Looking for Eric, Ken Loach returns to the shadows with Route Irish. The piece follows intense Liverpudlian Fergus (Mark Womack) – an ex-SAS officer – as he searches for answers concerning the death of his childhood friend, Frankie (Comedian John Bishop), on the titular road that links Baghdad airport and the city’s Green Zone. Adding further political capital to Loach’s tale is the fact that both men worked for a private military contractor in Iraq.
The MacGuffin of the piece emerges to be a mobile phone, sent to Fergus from Frankie via a fellow mercenary, which contains grainy footage of members of Frankie’s PMC squad mowing down an Iraqi family in cold blood. Convinced that his friend was murdered for threatening to take action over the unlawful shooting, Fergus, with the aid of Frankie’s widow Rachel (Andrea Lowe), a host of ex-squaddies, and a UK-based Iraqi musician (Talib Hamafraj), sets off down a road of investigation and bloody retribution.
While Route Irish’s plot is essentially rather derivative – think Death Wish with a left-wing slant – it does offer Loach the chance to tackle the thorny issue of the privatisation of warfare and its moral, economic and political effects. Or so you’d think.
The central plot point – of innocent Iraqis terrorised by trigger-happy Western dogs of war – does highlight the dubious morality of privatised conflict, but any political statement Loach’s film threatens to make is quickly lost beneath a deluge of screaming, crying, torture and vengeance. And that, sadly, is one of the key problems with Route Irish – it professes to be far more intelligent than it actually is.
From the villains of the piece – the PMC bosses – who are so one-dimensional they may as well have pound signs on their corneas, to Fergus’ firework-esque character arc and some surprisingly weak dialogue, long-time Loach scribe Paul Laverty’s script amounts to nothing more than a paint-by-numbers thriller haunted by the ghost of a prescient theme.
While both Laverty and Loach are no strangers to controversial conflicts, having tackled the Irish War of Independence with The Wind that Shakes the Barley, Route Irish largely shies away from asking the important questions you’d expect it to address. The closest Loach comes to a political point is portraying money to be the core concern of private military companies and torture to be an unreliable means of providing answers. Who’d have thought it?
Likewise, although cinematographer Chris Menges’ lensing of the piece in brooding greys and blues aids the dark, threatening mood Loach strives to establish, it does little to excite the eyes, in turn conjuring very few memorable images. Indeed, the scenes from Route Irish that linger in the mind are those that Loach has culled from archive footage – broken bodies lifted from the rubble of bombed buildings; Iraqis, white-hot in the lens of an infrared camera, literally blown away by drone fire; the bloodied face of a crying child. Next to these real-life scenes of warfare, Loach’s rendition – bar an authentic waterboarding torture scene – strikes as a toothless imitation.
In terms of acting, Route Irish proves a thoroughly uneven affair. While John Bishop, in his first feature role, brings warmth and believability to doomed mercenary Frankie, many of the other actors mistake heightened volume for heightened emotion. Indeed, so much spittle flies in Route Irish’s pivotal scenes you wonder if a doctor was on set to treat dehydration. Likewise, a romantic thread between Fergus and Rachel is hampered by the obvious lack of chemistry between the two leads.
Route Irish is not The Wind that Shakes the Barley for the Iraq War, nor is it a superior example of a genre film. What Ken Loach has created is basically an average thriller veiled in the reputation of its director and the ostensible addressing of a thorny political issue; it lives up to neither. Fergus’ quest, with its many wrong turns, revelations and eventual explosive finale, may hold the attention, but Route Irish offers nothing that hasn’t been seen in countless other thrillers. With a director of Loach’s caliber at the helm, it’s hard not to be disappointed.
Festivals offer a rare chance to instantly gauge public reaction to a film. The pregnant silence punctured by scattered, half-hearted applause that marked Route Irish’s GFF showing said more than a thousand words ever could. Likewise, at the question and answer session following the screening, more people seemed interested in the themes that backdrop Loach’s film than what the piece itself actually addressed. As one elderly, and particularly inebriated, Glaswegian struggled to his feet, withdrew several sheets of paper from a pocket, and proceeded to read Mr Loach a lengthy poem on the current crisis in Libya, it was put beyond doubt that Route Irish had failed as a starting point for conversation.
Just like that liquored-up old man, Loach’s film strives to be pertinent, thought-provoking, and emotive. Sadly, on a cold Glasgow night, both men offered nothing but a fleeting spectacle and the faint whiff of narcissism.