What Richard Did has such a portentous title that its easygoing narrative setup feels initially deceptive. Lenny Abrahamson’s film follows Richard Carlsen (Jack Reynor), a good-natured, popular 18-year-old rugby player whose bright future is crushed when he inadvertently kills a teammate, Conor (Sam Keeley). Throughout its first half, the film carefully establishes Richard’s honorable qualities, though it never puts him through any particularly challenging moral tests. As a natural-born leader he’s wont to protect his friends, though sometimes being an alpha male means he plays as aggressively off the field as on it. These dual tendencies attract the attention of Lara (Róisín Murphy), who eventually leaves Conor for Richard, after which the two boys remain uneasy friends.
Richard’s carefree summer days before university, spent carousing at pubs and embodying the comfortable life of middle-class privilege, are cut tragically short when he and his friends don’t bother to check Conor’s physical status following a drunken fist fight; he ends up bleeding to death, an accident the boys are unable to own up to in the subsequent investigation. While they’re resolutely remorseful and devastated, they find it easier to cover up the truth and not risk destroying their families’ social standings and their respective futures. Even Richard’s father (Lars Mikkelsen) advises him to stay quiet.
What Richard Did tries to locate an allegory about the moral quagmires of the Irish upper classes marginalizing the lower classes. The fact that the boys and their older guardian figure are so quick to deny the truth is revelatory about their true moral standing, though their decision-making also quietly points to a systemic apathy present in their sheltered existence. Like Lara, Conor is working class, as well as Catholic; indeed, these characteristics set him apart from his teammates and allow Richard to poke fun at him, notably after Conor publicly sings a Gaelic ballad. The song contains a lyric that Lara translates to a skeptical, dismissive Richard: “I’m asleep, and don’t wake me.” It’s a sentiment that easily describes the boys’ passivity. Lara is understandably broken up about Conor’s death, but also helpless in making sound decisions in the aftermath. The film implies that her class status is what informs her obeisance to Richard, who tells her she must lie to the police.
The film’s structure as a character study helps to subtly underscore the flawed justifications of a privileged kid’s thought patterns and unchallenged value system, but the narrative remains too stringently microcosmic to parse out any broader truths about Irish society. What Richard Did concludes on an optimistic note, one that finds Richard turning himself in. Though the viewer isn’t privy to this act or its consequences, the film ambitiously (and rightly) tells us that such information is irrelevant to the story at hand. The film’s title refers as much to the young protagonist’s act of violence as it does to his awakening from the slumber of moral complacency.