Impressively compact in its storytelling and visually sumptuous despite a budget of pocket-change proportions, Fifty Dead Men Walking hails the arrival of Kari Skogland as a filmmaker with a range of good instincts and one capable of exercising a subtle but sure directorial hand. The (presumed) closing skirmishes of the Irish “troubles” in the late ‘80s and ‘90s serve as the setting for this spy-versus-his-own-conscience drama following aimless Catholic hooligan Martin McGartland (Jim Sturgess) and his slowly solidifying bond with British police contact Fergus (Ben Kingsley), a genial, toupee-wearing working stiff who materializes after a routine arrest to dangle an offer of a meager allowance and an old clunker in exchange for information about neighborhood activities. It’s not for a price that Martin turns, but for the possibility of a new reality in which the IRA patrols that cruise the Belfast slums are unable to dish out summary “justice,” as they’re seen to do in an early scene, blowing off the kneecaps of a young thief and leaving him confined to a wheelchair for life, as we’re carefully shown.
In staging episodes of street thuggery, Skogland neither shies away from nor indulges in brutality, fixing her camera with a static gaze that’s at once curious and unimpressed. Her momentary bursts of visual exuberance are instead reserved for exceptions to this community’s norms, such as the night of youthful euphoria when Martin unwisely blows his “tout” (read: stoolie) allowance to impress new girlfriend Lara (Natalie Press) with a rollicking night at Belfast’s four-star Europa Hotel; a quick flash of their aggressive balcony sex is a moment stolen from the routine grimness of the streets below, as precious as prison sex. In contrast, the sour adherents to the “cause,” such as the dead-eyed, overly-professional climber Mickey (Tom Collins), are presented as a soulless lot, long past their cultural sell-by date and all the more vicious for being subconsciously aware of it. Half-devoted to their political ideas, if that much, they are shown to be forever focused on the needs of the moment, busily facilitating the next bombing or the next bit of payback for an unsuspecting tout. Some, like the flashy redhead Grace (Rose McGowan), even seem to have developed personas from Tom Clancy fiction, ones built for romantic tragedy. “They’re just killers who’ve found a cause to kill for,” is how Fergus phrases his contempt, lacing it with a tired smile that suggests his belief that these dead-enders won’t reproduce.
For all their bullish intransigence and flaccid retreats into easy PR speak about “saving lives,” the IRA operatives are never viewed as less than an acute threat to Martin’s safety, casting suspicious eyes his way as he goes about his daily work as a low-level driver and errand boy, steadily moving up the chain while simultaneously slipping information to (and commiserating with) Fergus, bringing both his so-called mates and himself ever closer to true danger. Though Skogland declines to raise the threat stakes beyond what would have been believable for Belfast at the time, she manages to build events to a taut crescendo, putting Martin at the center of a planned pub bombing in a way that amplifies his risk of exposure and/or betrayal on both sides. That the eventual gathering of young people at the pub strikes a chord of terrible youth wasted—why are they there for murder instead of just a beer?—is owed to the sharp, engaging portrayals by Sturgess and Press, as well as to the keen attention to emotional nuance demonstrated by the director throughout. While it’s occasionally ungainly and a bit too long, like its title, Fifty Dead Men Walking is an effective tightrope of a film that refuses to import its heft from the boozy, stock poetics of Irish cinema, instead building it from the floor up with nothing more than the faces on the screen.