With their feature debut, Helen (2008), British directing duo Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy toyed with notions of identity as they followed a young woman playing the role of a missing girl as part of a police reconstruction. They plunge into similar thematic waters with their follow-up, Mister John (2013), which once again places its protagonist in a position where their sense of self becomes less and less tethered as they battle their own inner demons. In this instance, Aiden Gillen gives a beguiling lead performance as a figure hopelessly adrift in a setup that shares elements with Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives (2013).
Gerry Devine (Gillen) is bereft of his luggage when he pitches up in Singapore following the untimely death of his brother, John. There to help settle the affairs of the deceased – such as the Irish bar that’s now being run by his brother’s alluring widow, Kim (Zoe Tay) – he soon finds himself slipping unconsciously into his sibling’s life. The temptation to abandon his own life and assume his brother’s persona – which furnishes the film with its title – precedes a blurring of lines both physical and metaphorical. An exotic Eastern setting, a Western protagonist, a the dead brother and a hero drifting through a neon underworld all link Refn’s Only God Forgives with Mister John, but that’s where the refined latter’s similarities with the bloody former end.
Lawlor and Molloy opt for a rigorously real world approach to their subject matter, even if they do allow cinematographer Ole Birkeland some leeway to woozily present the locale, both sumptuous and threatening. The directing pair flirt with the potential to shift gears for a far more subjective and delirious trip – a snake bite and ghostly mutterings get cameos – but choose instead to keep Gerry’s feet firmly on the ground, even when he’s not that sure whose they are. This maintains a palpable tension, but equally a sense that their quiet drama is straining to break its leash.
Gillen and Tay both impress as grieving souls circling one another and the plot slowly reveals the pain that awaits Gerry back in grey old Blighty. That’s the way that Mister John is designed to work throughout; a measured examination of a man presented with a choice, and one that seems to be trying to make itself for him. For every moment that its impeccable restraint and ambiguities prove laudable, however, one can’t help but feel that more enjoyment may have been garnered by Lawlor and Molloy loosening their collars a little more.
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