The exhilarating, Bible-inspired, pitch-black comedy “Redemption of a Rogue” centers on a prodigal son returning to his rural Ireland hometown to seek redemption for his sins. Based on this ambitious, sardonic feature debut, writer-director Philip Doherty (who is also a playwright and theater director) scores as a promising talent, one who might be the spiritual heir of Anglo-Irish filmmaking brothers Martin and John Michael McDonagh or even the Coen brothers. Certainly, Doherty displays winning confidence, visual imagination and stylistic bravura as he elevates a witty but foul-mouthed village comedy into something more provocative and universal. And he orchestrates the whole confection as a sort of blues opera, with on-screen musical artists providing beguiling songs that comment on the action.
It’s been seven years since Jimmy Cullen (Aaron Monaghan) set foot in (the fictional) Ballylough, a godforsaken spot of near-perpetual rain. Back then, he departed in disgrace, leaving behind younger brother Damien (Kieran Roche), a brutal father who raised them with his fists (Hugh O’Brien) and embittered, onetime girlfriend Patricia (Liz Fitzgibbon). Helmer Doherty cleverly doles out information about Jimmy’s shameful past in the form of flashbacks in a 16mm format that reveal his wrongdoings. Amusingly, although these episodes show events from years ago, he’s still pictured as his current bearded, battered, adult self.
Forced by the terms of his deceased father’s will to hang around Ballylough until the rain stops and the old man can be buried, Jimmy suffers through a personal purgatory of suicidal thoughts and savage encounters until he meets sultry singer Masha (Aisling O’Mara), a Mary Magdalene-ish figure, in a local pub. As the rain continues for a dismal, Noah-esque 40 days and 40 nights and Ballylough’s children stop talking and eating, Jimmy takes the advice of a saucy, cigarette-smoking Virgin Mary (Lorna Quinn) who comes to life in a local church and comes up with a plan to save the children and engineer his own salvation.
The film is both steeped in and lovingly mocks Irishness, in particular the Irishness of County Cavan from where Doherty, his inspired production designer brother Joseph and much of his cast hails, and where the film was shot. It’s a place of lotto drawings, funeral sandwiches and getting punched on the dance floor for no good reason. It’s also a place where people speak eloquently, passionately and precisely, whether about the properties of a good rope, a religious statuette or their beliefs on sex and religion. Not only does Joseph Doherty’s production design perfectly capture the dampness and dowdiness of everyday village life, but it also brilliantly creates the otherworldliness of Jimmy’s religion-inspired nightmares and visions.
Indeed, the film is also steeped in the Bible, with Doherty happily looting both Old and New Testaments. Memorably quirky scenes include Jimmy flabbergasting his brother and a group of local thugs with an informed riff on a plausible scientific basis for the 10 plagues of Egypt and Jimmy and Masha trying to effect a miracle with Child of Prague statues.
Led by the excellent, hang-dog Monaghan, a top theater performer, the entire cast nails helmer Doherty’s tone of deadpan absurdism that wouldn’t be out of place in an Aki Kaurismaki film, although there’s far more dialogue here. The tech credits look great for what was a low-budget production; kudos to first-time feature cinematographer Burschi Wojnar and Allyn Quigley’s exuberant editing.