Spread out over 33 years and framed almost entirely in three crucial, tension-filled scenes, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Five Minutes of Heaven dissects the intersection of two men’s lives in the aftermath of wartime and sectarian conflict. In a small North Ireland town in 1975, Alistair Little (Mark Davison), a Protestant teenager, combs his feathered hair and adorns his best polyester garb as vintage ‘70s rock blasts in the background; not a soul would suspect a good-looking Irish chap like Alistair, appearing as if he were getting ready for a school dance, to be wielding a handgun. The initial, adroitly built stretch of the film moves with a taut uneasiness, with Hirschbiegel cutting back and forth between Alistair and an 11-year-old named Joe Griffin (Kevin O’Neil) kicking his soccer ball repeatedly against the wall outside his home in joyful, mechanical form. When Alistair finally does approach and takes aim at Joe’s defenseless, Catholic brother from outside their living room window, the camera stays on Joe; the audience doesn’t see the bullets fly, and as such fear overtakes the mind. It is Joe who is left with the image of his brother soaked in blood, ever so still and lifeless, as he walks back into the house, stunned.
Fast forward to 2008, the two now-older men are brought back together through a reality program, meeting face to face for the very first time since that life-changing, deathly episode. “Do I shake [Alistair’s] hand or do I kill him?” ponders the older Joe (James Nesbitt) as he tempestuously, and begrudgingly, waits upstairs for the show to begin. Alistair (Liam Neeson), on the other hand, dressed to the nines, is fully ready to rehash old times and repent for the unspeakable killing of Joe’s older brother. Endlessly haunted by the murder, Nesbitt plays the present Joe as a dormant volcano, erupting brilliantly and fervently into all-consuming rage.
Few actors are able to tackle unbridled emotion with such controlled accuracy as Nesbitt does so thoughtfully. Although superficially sturdy and resolved at first, Neeson unravels the guilt-stricken Alistair’s long-held burden through his unrelenting gaze, hopelessly awaiting Joe’s arrival in the opposing chair as the taping is about to begin. Neeson’s performance is a delicate one, calibrated with the touch of a master actor delivering on a difficult task: portraying a past murderer as sympathetic and truly rehabilitated.
Each effortlessly crafted frame is an unflinching study on how old wounds haunt the mind, complicating the present and shaping the soul over time. Yes, IRA politics are part of the picture (Hirschbiegel deftly establishes the conflict via a montage of archival footage in the beginning of the film), but the history is only used, thankfully, as the backdrop to the moral struggle faced by the two tortured, forever-entangled lead characters. Their final confrontation might be the film’s only fault, as Joe’s anger toward Alistair no longer simmers but rather boils over during a brutal and ludicrously over-the-top brawl; the two pummel each other into a pulp, High Noon-style, in a scene seemingly more apt for a run-of-the-mill action film than a meditative rumination on catharsis.
Through punctuated sound and frenzied camera moves, the director develops a mood and climate as thick and tightly wound as any sweat-inducing moment in The Hurt Locker. Heaven‘s time bomb, though, soundly lies in Joe’s mind, slowly ticking away as past tragedy firmly grips the now.