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If anything can be understood about Mark O’Connor from his new film, it’s obvious he doesn’t like easy or pleasant characters. Cardboard Gangsters movie, which is O’Connor’s fourth feature movie to this point, returns to familiar grounds for the moviemaker, exploring the oft-neglected and twisted communities in Irish society.
Co-written by its star, John Connors (who previously worked in O’Connor’s King of the Travellers), the film’s attention directs itself to the notorious suburbs of Darndale, a north county Dublin estate with a high level of social housing and crime. In spite of years of social development, the north side of Dublin still holds pieces of its image as a more precarious and rough area to visit and places, like Darndale, often receive the brunt of this reputation that, in turn, greatly affects its residents’ ability to progress in either education or employment.
All of this is addressed in Cardboard Gangsters with a refreshing sense of frankness. At times, it can come from a sardonic gag where takeaways refuse to deliver food to the residency, or from the small discussion of a mother trying to persuade her son to go to college. While it may follow the plot of four young men who try getting by through selling drugs, Darndale is very much the centre of its story. Jay Connolly (Connors), a 24-year-old DJ, lives with his mother, who struggles from day-to-day to make ends meet and keep their house.
With his highly unpredictable friend, Dano (Fionn Walton; What Richard Did), Jay moves from nightclub narcotics, like cocaine and ecstasy, into the even more dangerous substance heroine. This attracts the attention of local kingpin, Derra Murphy (Jimmy Smallhorne), who threatens Jay and Dano to stop competing in his territory or face the consequences. But the glorified lifestyle of money, drugs, and sex, goad Jay and Dano into challenging Derra and whatever violence may come from their actions.
Having performed well to the audience at the Galway Film Fleadh last year, a contributor to Film Ireland aptly described the film as similar to the classic hood movies such as Menace II Society and Boyz in the Hood. The simultaneous and meticulous balancing between decoding and appreciating the community of Darndale helps Cardboard Gangsters stay remarkably on the scale of its subject matter. It neither looks down upon nor looks up to its characters and their lifestyle, but demonstrates a clear understanding of what motivates people into choosing a criminal path. None of its characters are likable and are often repugnant, but their sense of vulnerability and confusion makes them relatable. It’s hard to imagine another gangster film which features its tough guy breaking down with tears and into the arms of his mother.
For all the respects, Cardboard Gangsters movie hits right in its authenticity, there are a number of issues which inhibit the overall experience from being a truly great movie. While audio and continuity hiccups can be forgiven as insignificant, the genericity of its plot is unavoidable. With little variation or subversion, it follows the rise and fall of your ordinary gangster movie. Worryingly for 2017, the film is far too casually misogynistic where all of its women are divisible into two categories – mothers and “session moths.” While the movie gives moments to its men in exposing their hypermasculinity as a thin veil, no chance arises for any of its heroine counterparts. Their big emotional moments are reduced to comic absurdity as one shouts on the street to another “you’re after riding me fella!”
It’s a detriment to the film’s finer moments of community and understanding. Cardboard Gangsters full movie sets itself apart in the gangster genre by its more nuanced and intense performances from all actors involved. Fionn Walton definitely has the juiciest role and perfectly handles being dangerously capricious and way over his head simultaneously, but John Connors holds a more charismatic and intimidating presence on screen. Connors, famously known from RTE’s Love/Hate, showcases an incredible ability to make use of his size and his voice to be imposing and ominous but with slight cracks to expose the inexperienced young man just below the surface.