Elusive, nuanced and poignant, Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy’s second feature together, Mister John (2013), fathoms the depths of masculine identity in crisis, with an emotionally resonant tale given additional flavour by its exotic locale. We first meet Gerry Divine (played by the under-used and underrated Aiden Gillen) in a haggard, unshaven and jet-lagged state. Upon hearing news of the death of his older brother John, he flies out to Singapore to make arrangements for the funeral. Greeted by Kim (Zoe Tay), John’s widow who runs the family bar, Jerry finds himself slipping further and further into an existential stupor.
As if by osmosis, Jerry gradually begins to adopt the identity of his older sibling as his domestic family life in the UK drifts into insignificance. This is part of the quiet brilliance of Mister John, something initially unsettling the pushes towards the disturbing. The film exposes the fluidity of identity through the subtle use of visual metaphors to enhance Gillen’s performance, showing the change both on a psychological and, to a lesser extent, physical level. It’s a sensitive representation of masculinity, with the titular Irishman a delightful mix of both the morose and comical, much like the drama’s pervading tone. Gillen’s performance is central to this discomforting deconstruction of machismo in its portrayal of loss and hopelessness.
Beyond the voyeurism of watching a man slowly lose his grip on the foundations of reality lurk several darkly comic moments of relief; an unconscious barfly Gerry has to drag from his hotel room door; the embarrassment of a snake bite that induces erections; or an attempt at maintaining his masculine bravado, only to end up a bruised and battered mess. These dalliances mesh with the arc of Mister John, their ridiculousness and unreality a sign of how far Gerry has slipped from confronting the real world. During the course of the film there are even mysterious flashbacks to life back in London – a fading memory that slowly reveals the true reason Gerry was so happy to flee the city and embrace life abroad.
These hallucinatory moments offer an unearthly, dreamlike quality to proceedings, signifying a memory that cannot be digested all at once as it brings with it too much pain and grief. Some may well find this mysterious, deeply enigmatic quality alienating, denying the audience the opportunity to ever quite identify with our central protagonist. Yet, those familiar with Lawlor and Molloy’s inaugural effort, 2008’s Helen, will find Mister John’s abstract tonality far easier to embrace. With only their second feature, this husband and wife partnership demonstrate a keen level of perception in what is an ensorcelling character study.