Two young Traveller boys living in a Dublin slum come into possession of a beautiful white horse who their grandfather has named Tír na nÓg (The Land of Youth.) When police take the horse, the brothers conspire to steal him back and ride off into the sunset like Western outlaws. Their actions trigger a wild chase across the country by the police and the boys’ father, while the horse proves to be more than he seems.
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In a lot of ways a movie like Into The West could be embarrassing to some Irish people, a relic of a bygone time most would sooner forget. Shot before the Celtic Tiger launched Ireland into its greatest economic boom, and at times featuring a Stage Irish view of the country, it can seem almost quaint today. Its sympathetic, highly romanticised depiction of the Traveller community (an Irish nomadic group who share similarities with the gypsy or Roma communities) can still grate with some today. Yet, though it may not have aged well, it still portrays a country in the grip of social and economic turmoil, as Ireland was at the time, and its plot is an entertaining twist on the Western tale, incorporating an old Irish favourite: the ghost story.
The boys try to keep the horse in their apartment, with predictably chaotic results, and it isn’t long before the police confiscate the animal, only to later sell him to an unscrupulous horse trainer. The boys mount a daring rescue, stealing the horse back; fuelled by the Western movies they love, they decide to ride to the West (“the Wild West!”)
Ossie, innocent and suffering from poor health, is like a modern day Tiny Tim, albeit one who isn’t afraid to lash out when, for instance, he discovers his father signed ownership of the horse away. Ossie’s path as the boys head across the country will open his eyes to the dangers of the world around him, but leave him with the strand of hope that will keep him safe even when times are at their worst. Ably played by a debuting Ciarán Fitzgerald, Ossie is a child you would do anything for - even when faking an asthma attack during a rendition of “Danny Boy” to gain sympathy (and cash) from passers-by.
But while the boys confront physical dangers (both real and imaginary), their father is left to confront his personal demons. Papa Reilly, an illiterate drunk, is forced to sober up and return to the community he shunned if he is to find his children before the police. Gabriel Byrne and Ellen Barkin were married at the time of the film’s production, lending an added spark to the relationship between Reilly and fiery tracker Kathleen, who seems to bring with her an energy that has long been lost from the grieving widower.
Throughout the film, the spectre of Mary, the long-deceased wife of Papa and mother of Ossie and Tito. Her memory haunts each of them in different ways, from Papa’s obvious grief at the loss of his love to Ossie’s guilt and the sorrow of never seeing her face. Like Irish stories of old, her ghost manifests itself in different ways until the paths of the three characters converge on a blustery Western coast. As Papa Reilly’s search party clash with a police force headed by Inspector Bolger (played with malevolent glee by Brendon Gleeson) Tír na nÓg rides off into the sea, a terrified Ossie on his back. On the verge of death, Ossie feels himself pulled up towards the surface by a gentle, maternal hand. His rescue is the final redemption for all involved, giving Papa another chance to save the life of a loved one while finally relinquishing the ghosts of his past. It is a scene that could seem mawkish were it not for Fitzgerald’s simple delivery of the line, “I saw her” and the almost feral way in which Papa holds his son, like a wild beast protecting its young, his face etched with relief and primal fear.
Director Mike Newell, already a veteran of screen both big and small, would go on to greater acclaim helming Four Weddings & A Funeral and Donnie Brasco, and he brings with him here the calm sensibility of a film maker comfortable in his role. He draws memorable performances from his two young protagonists, who are surrounded by a heady mix of great acting talent. Tom Sigel’s camerawork ably captured the windswept hinterland of Western Ireland, making Into The West one of the last popular films to celebrate the barely-contained wilderness of the nation, before Irish cinema retreated to the cities in search of “grittier” stories.
Into the West is something of a historical artefact, and for that reason it should be applauded. Though its depiction of Irish life could be considered no more accurate than that of The Quiet Man, it has a charm to it, laced with an acidic bite that reminds the viewer of a hard life lesson: though we spend our childhoods wrapped up in a world of imagination and adventure, we must eventually open our eyes to the sometimes harsh realities of life. Into The West, however, shows us that there is a way to grow up in a tough world without forsaking everything that makes life worth living.