Brent Simon once again delivers us another glorious review but this time it’s of Liam Neeson’s brand new movie where once again his particular set of skills come to the fold. Here’s our In the Lands of Saints and Sinners review.
In 2008, Neeson starred in Taken, scripted by Luc Besson and directed by Pierre Morel, as a retired CIA operative who makes bone-crunchingly effective use of his “very particular set of skills” in tracking down those responsible for kidnapping his teenage daughter (Maggie Grace).
The film was a worldwide smash hit at the box office and reinvigorated the actor’s career, having the twofold impact of reintroducing Neeson to other big-budget studio fare (Clash of the Titans, The A-Team, Battleship) and also opening up a lucrative stream of comfortable cookie-cutter action flicks (including two Taken sequels, plus movies like Non-Stop, The Commuter, Blacklight, and more) in which Neeson growled, punched and shot his way through men who were foolish enough to cross him and/or place his family in jeopardy.
Some critics can be quite cynical about actors falling into grooves that represent, shall we say, the artistic path of least resistance, but with actions in which no one is being harmed, why should anyone begrudge someone else a healthy payday? The truth is that, in qualitative measure, some of these offshoot action-dramas from Neeson have been subpar, but others quite entertaining.
In the Land of Saints and Sinners, from director Robert Lorenz, is the latest offering to fit this mold, loosely. A world premiere at the 2023 Venice Film Festival, the movie is a Western-inflected low-boil thriller that checks the boxes of extracted vengeance many casual Neeson fans have come to desire and expect while also providing something rooted enough in character and authentic setting to also keep Neeson engaged as an actor, and thus appeal to those seeking out slightly more substantive, “plussed” cinematic fare.
Set in 1974, the movie focuses on Finbar Murphy (Neeson), a Dostoevsky-reading widower who leads a quiet life in the remote Irish coastal town of Glencolmcille, far from the political violence which grips the rest of the country.
To his one friend, local police officer Vinnie (Ciarán Hinds), Finbar ostensibly makes a living as a rare book trader, but there’s a reason that he always wins their low-stakes-bet shooting contests.
In actuality, Finbar works as a murder-for-hire fixer for Robert (Colm Meaney), burying all of his marks in a well-stocked field, each marked by a freshly planted tree. He has a bit of contentious relationship with Kevin (Jack Gleeson), another young assassin who picks up lesser assignments from Robert.
When Finbar notices signs of physical abuse on young Moya (Michelle Gleeson), the daughter local of pub bartender Sinéad (Sarah Greene), he makes new-in-town hothead Curtis (Desmond Eastwood) as the culprit, and pitches Robert on the idea of rubbing him out.
Robert declines, but Finbar decides to proceed anyway. It’s only then that he discovers Curtis’ fraternal connection to Doireann (Kerry Condon), the ruthless leader of a menacing crew of IRA terrorists hiding out nearby after their most recent bombing has gone sideways.
When Doireann rightly ascertains his culpability in her brother’s disappearance, Finbar finds himself drawn into a high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse, and forced to choose between exposing his secret identity or defending his friends and neighbors.
In addition to a handful of credits behind the camera, Lorenz (Trouble with the Curve) is perhaps best known (at least within the industry) as a longtime, Oscar-nominated producer, first assistant director and second unit helmer for Clint Eastwood, dating back decades. That career history provides something of a handy frame for In the Land of Saints and Sinners.
Working from a sturdy if not particularly surprising script by Mark Michael McNally and Terry Loane, Lorenz crafts a film that leans heavily upon its characters to serve up a thoughtful exploration of different moral codes.
Of distinct emphasis is the movie’s analysis of past experiences as a predictor of (and excuse for) present and future actions, and how one can make amends for transgressions — not singularly unique for a film of this type, perhaps, but themes given ample room to breathe and provided with a nice backdrop here.
Lorenz also makes superlative use of the spectacular scenery (the movie was shot on location in County Donegal), evocatively captured in plenty of expansive wide shots by cinematographer Tom Stern. In this respect, the movie — a period piece just mostly by virtue of its rural environs, and staying away from city landscapes — plugs into a certain timelessness, almost incidentally. One can imagine watching it now or in 20 years, and having virtually the same experience.
That said, the film’s ambitions extend only so far — in staging, execution and certainly dialogue it doesn’t really try to tap into anything mythic, or connected to a deeper collective unconscious — but in a way that works to its benefit, as it also avoids any pretensions. Instead, Lorenz just hands the baton to his actors and lets them carry the day.
He’s abetted by Neeson, with whom the director previously collaborated on 2021’s The Marksman. Sensing the greater depths and possibility of the material, the 71-year-old actor invests a more significant level of passion into his role, imbuing Finbar with palpably blossoming regrets over a life he comes to see as littered with meaningless detritus.
The supporting cast for the most part matches Neeson’s qualitative output. Meaney and Hinds are stalwarts with an instinctive sense of how to plug into a movie’s tone and rhythm, and play almost any scene. Gleeson, meanwhile, brings just the right pinch of chaotic energy to his role, as a headstrong upstart who comes to appreciate that he doesn’t yet know everything he thinks he does.
The exception is Condon, fresh off her award-winning performance in The Banshees of Inisherin. While she portrays a hard-edged, take-no-gruff, largely unlikeable character, it’s true, Condon also fails to give Doireann any greater sense of believable dimensionality.
Hers is a strident performance rooted in volume, not layered feelings. It’s a shame, because with a more realistically shaded antagonist to Neeson’s Finbar, In the Land of Saints and Sinners perhaps could have been something special.
In The Lands of Saints and Sinners Review by Brent Simon
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