The Front Line Review

22:30 Mon 11 May 2009
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I came across The Front Line while surfing Netflix for heist movies recently, and decided to watch it on the basis that it was Irish, relatively well-rated, and also that I’d never heard of it. I ended up being fairly impressed, with some reservations.

It’s not a pure heist movie in my opinion, primarily because not that much of the plot is about the heist per se. It’s still in the genre, but it’s not about the process of figuring out how to do the heist, the obstacles along the way, and so on.

It’s about a Congolese immigrant to Ireland, Joe, who manages to get residency (with the right to work) in Ireland and ends up working as a security guard at a bank. That alone was enough to make it interesting to me, as I haven’t seen too many films exploring the experience of immigrants to Ireland.

Without giving too much away, Joe ends up being targeted by Dublin criminals who threaten those dear to him in order to coerce him into helping them rob the bank. Joe also has a murky past that’s tied up with terrible conflict in the Congo, and this past is brought to light as the film progresses.

I thought that the first two-thirds of the film were well done, with fairly tight plotting, good pacing, and enough interesting pieces to get you past some of the unlikely bits.

I do think it deserves praise for that, and for tackling the issues it was tackling at all. Unfortunately the last third dropped off quite a bit in quality.

I thought that the unearthing of Joe’s past at that point got to be a little too much. It was certainly compelling, and interesting, but it just didn’t matter in terms of the plot that was unfolding in the film. The Gardaí and immigration officials were pressing too hard for that information considering the fact that it was unlikely to be pertinent to their investigation, and certainly not in comparison to the other leads they had. At this point the strain of trying to “past” plot thread and the “heist” plot thread together was clearly visible.

It also seemed at this point that the film started, suddenly, trying to make the “good” native Irish characters more sympathetic, introducing some details about the main immigration official that just seemed contrived to generate sympathy, but also struck me as off in the sense that, at that point, I didn’t care. The whole story had been about Joe, and his troubles, and the other characters were ancillary, and suddenly the film appeared to be trying to interest the viewer in the past of some other character in a way that seemed clumsy and unnecessary. It was almost as if they suddenly thought “shit, a lot of our audience might not identify with the black Congolese refugee, or the psycho Dublin professional criminal, or the bank janitor, better flesh out a white middle class guy for them pronto!”

The Irish middle class guy in question worked in some unspecified capacity as an immigration official, although he could have been part of some Garda unit that specifically dealt with immigrants. I feel ambivalent about this aspect of the film also: I just wonder about the portrayal of the immigration authorities as benevolent, concerned, and understanding, essentially. I’m sure there are many people in the relevant departments who are just that; I also suspect that there are plenty who aren’t, too, and any examination of the immigrant experience seems like it needs to acknowledge that reality.

I was a little disturbed by the use of the conflict in the Congo to represent savagery and barbarity (two rather loaded terms, but in this context their use seems apt). There’s no doubt in my mind that it fits those descriptions, but the racial element is more or less impossible to overlook, and while the black characters are portrayed quite sympathetically, something feels off to me about their past and homeland representing the terrible capacity for violence lurking beneath the surface in humanity, with the Irish (acting, in that particular scene, as representing Europe as a whole) symbolizing the civilized culture for whom such violence is unimaginable. This is a very tricky area, and the film definitely undermines that dichotomy in other scenes (primarily by displaying the cruelty of the Irish criminals), but the idea of the West being civilized and beyond that kind of thing is something I find dubious in the extreme, and if it does have any validity at all it must be recognized that it’s a pretty damn recent development.

Before I go on to my last points, I should say two things. One is that it must be recognized that these ideas are part of a larger culture that the film is reflecting, and that the film doesn’t exactly just cheerlead for them.

The second is: SPOILER—my final points involve significant details from the end of the film, and you probably shouldn’t read further if you’re going to watch it.

I’m generally a fan of stories that aren’t hesitant to kill off protagonists, particularly the main protagonists, although it’s not easy to do it really well (I was rather ambivalent about that in No Country for Old Men), and there are certain tropes that do it that I don’t care much for. The Front Line uses one of them: the protagonist goes down into darkness, for a good cause, achieves the goal(s), but the descent into that darkness is too much, and thus they die. This is quite explicit in The Front Line, as Joe’s death is preceded by his own discussion of his past violent deeds and his own despair at them and the fact that he feels that they pursued him into his new life in Dublin. I suppose what disturbs me most about this trope is its neatness: the death of the protagonist here often makes it really easy to avoid all kinds of awkward questions that would otherwise arise. Like: should criminal charges be brought? Do the mitigating circumstances matter? Who gets to judge these things? Is our society (never mind our machinery of law) even capable of making such judgments? Aren’t different circumstances of violence (in this case, revenge killings versus a terrible enemy in Joe’s past as opposed to violent assaults apparently necessary to save his life and the life of a child) very different things, not both fungible manifestations of some darkness in the human spirit? Killing off the protagonist in these cases avoids the question of how society should/would/could deal with those acts afterwards, and that really seems too easy. It also suggests that the “natural” punishment for these things is death, but that’s also too neat and glib.

Lastly, I was disturbed by the emphasis of the film on personal violence, where one is directly dealing with those one kills or tortures. Violence of that kind is unquestionably a terrible thing. My reservations stem from the portrayed contrast between the site/source of that violence (i.e. the Congo, even when some of the acts take place in Dublin—I really think that Joe’s use of a machete in the last violent encounter is meant to be highly symbolic) and the “civilized” West. Focusing on the evil of violence conducted at a personal level within the framework of that dichotomy seems to be eliding the kind of violence that the West happens to be extraordinarily good at: the remote, impersonal kind, where untold numbers of people can be (and have been) slaughtered without any personal contact whatsoever. Any contemporary message about the darkness of the human spirit and its manifestation through violence needs to consider both kinds, perhaps the latter kind all the more, because it’s become so easy for its practitioners to be entirely unaffected by its practice. Further, considering that its practice is probably the core reason for the preeminence of the “civilized” West, any message using the West to represent some kind of oasis from or development beyond that kind of inhumanity has a responsibility to consider impersonal violence and its impact on society and on individuals.

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