“Cryptic” could be a go-to word for critics describing “Mister John,” the quietly impressive sophomore feature from Irish husband-and-wife team Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy, but it’s ultimately the film’s avoidance of mystery that proves so effective and unnerving. A coolly composed character study that teasingly pulls back from its obvious thriller potential, the pic boasts a tremendous performance by Aidan Gillen as a disconsolate family man offered an intriguing escape route by his brother’s sudden death in Singapore. The determinedly subtle film reps an adventurous pickup for U.K. arthouse giant Artificial Eye, but critical word of mouth should aid modest returns.
Molloy and Lawlor earned a select critical following with their 2009 debut, “Helen,” a chilly, formally precise portrait of a young woman who poses as a missing girl for a police investigation and slowly assumes her life. That fascinating inquiry into the nature of identity continues in “Mister John,” which is thematically and tonally of a piece with “Helen,” sharing its eerie transparency in delineating a taciturn protag whose questionable actions pass largely without comment from other characters — or, indeed, from the filmmakers themselves.
This intelligently passive storytelling approach may make the film something of an acquired taste, but even frustrated viewers should appreciate its virtues as a showcase for wonderful Irish thesp Gillen. Best known to international auds for smallscreen roles in “The Wire” and “Game of Thrones,” he’s all too rarely employed as a leading man, which makes his restraint and economy of gesture here all the more remarkable. It’s the still-waters physicality of his performance that keeps the character of Gerry, a London businessman recently thrown for a loop by his unseen wife’s infidelity, compelling despite a baseline state of moroseness.
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In any event, Gerry’s better off than his brother John: the proprietor of the Singapore hostess bar that gives the film its title, he’s introduced floating face-down in a tropical lake in the film’s languid opening shot. At once grief-stricken and grateful for a distraction from his domestic troubles, Gerry heads east to sort out John’s estate. Having never visited while his brother was alive, he’s almost immediately presented with the opportunity to slip into the dead man’s place. John’s kindly Chinese widow, Kim (Zoe Tay, excellent), begins by encouraging Gerry to wear her husband’s old clothes: She takes comfort in seeing him in them, but it soon becomes clear that she’d like to see him out of them, too.
Kim’s unarticulated but none-too-subtle seduction of her brother-in-law seems to be part of a coordinated karmic effort by the entire island to make him shed his identity: “Don’t be surprised if you’re not fully yourself,” a doctor warns Gerry while treating him for a nasty snakebite. Sure enough, before long, everyone from the bar staff to thuggish debtor Lester (Michael Thomas) is picking up where they left off with John in their dealings with him.
There’s little ambiguity about the trap that’s being set for Gerry, but watching him step knowingly into it makes for strangely tense drama, as Gillen and the filmmakers keep his actions plain but his motivations pliable. As the dead brother is gradually revealed to us through the living one, are we witnessing a case of subterfuge or possession? The blunt suggestion of John’s shady dealings keeps threatening to push this into outright noir territory — a less bloody alternative to Nicolas Winding Refn’s East-meets-West thriller “Only God Forgives,” perhaps. But as Gerry hovers on the edge of fully committed morphosis, so the film’s identity, too, remains intriguingly in flux.
Production values are unshowy but uniformly topnotch. Ole Birkland’s crisp 35mm lensing favors static compositions that, together with Niall Brady’s layered sound design, do much to convey the positively narcotic effect of the heat: The humidity of the film’s lush Singaporean locations practically appears as condensation on the screen.