Doubles, doppelgängers, shifting identities. These themes are at the heart of some of cinema’s most enduring narratives, reaching dizzying heights in films such as Hitchcock’s VERTIGO (1958), Bergman’s PERSONA (1966) and Lynch’s MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001).
However, Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy’s MISTER JOHN is more akin to Michelangelo Antonioni’s THE PASSENGER (1975), both being mysterious tales about men trying to escape themselves in exotic locations.
Lawlor and Molloy’s striking 2008 debut HELEN, about a police reconstruction stand-in who begins to over-identify with the missing girl she is playing, used long, floaty shots of carefully choreographed action coupled with a non-professional cast to create a creepy, hallucinatory atmosphere.
In MISTER JOHN, this formal juxtaposition has vanished and the film is more immersive and emotionally affecting as a result. But the unsettled dreaminess of HELEN remains, skulking around the fringes of every scene, ready to throw a few surprises into a hypnotically paced narrative.
Aidan Gillen plays Gerry, a quietly troubled soul who leaves an unspecified domestic mess behind to travel to Singapore when his brother John is found drowned there. He enters a world of sex-tourism and expat sleazeballs, discovering that John owned a bar frequented by prostitutes and their clients (the titular Mister Johns).
Gerry learns more about his brother’s world, reacting with a mixture of cynicism and intrigue. And as his thoughts are dogged by his marital problems back home, a doorway to a new world appears before him. He is primed to replace John as the head of a mini-empire of easy girls and good-natured, hard-drinking men. John’s beautiful widow, whilst evidently bereaved, seems to be unusually open to the prospect. On more than one occasion we hear characters recount a folk belief about the drowned: the water ghosts have taken John and he must now wait for a replacement before he can return to the material world.
Throw in an unpaid debt owed to John’s family and the scene is set for a psychological thriller of shifting identities and ghosts of the past. The film defies genre expectations in favour of something more personally revealing, as Gerry wanders off down the backstreets of his subconscious. Freudian themes abound, and Gerry’s struggle between his impulse to live and his desire to sever connections with life back home becomes a drama of the psyche. But the demons he has fled will not disappear and, in a long, sweaty night of the soul, they return to haunt him in an adeptly executed dream sequence.
In the hands of cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland, such moments are quietly unsettling. He finds a Lynchian sense of dread in the bright blue days and neon nights of Singapore. The composition of some of the interiors recalls his work on THE ARBOR (2010), with murky doorways and corridors beckoning the darkest recesses of the psyche to the surface.
In the centre of just about every scene, Gillen gives a subtle, captivating performance as a lost soul in a liminal world of half-light. Any role that requires a grieving character to endure a venom-induced involuntary erection is bound to be a challenge. He plays the ensuing awkwardness with just the right amount of resignation and embarrassment.
Lawlor and Molloy’s second feature confirms the couple as a distinctive force in British art-house cinema. They have created a complex film from a deceptively simple narrative: part character study, part psychological thriller, all mystery. It’s a worthy addition to the ‘doubling’ canon.