Five Minutes of Heaven

Five Minutes of Heaven

You never know who's on the other side of that door.

(IFC) Liam Neeson, James Nesbitt, Anamaria Marinca, Juliet Crawford, Niamh Cusack, Richard Dormer, Jonathan Harden. Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel

Violence is a tool that our species likes to use to resolve conflict. Rationally, we know that it solves nothing and only leads to more violence. However, nobody ever accused the human race of being intelligent.

On a cold day in 1975, 17-year-old Alistair Little, a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force, shot 19-year-old Catholic worker Jim Griffin in the head through the front window of the Griffin home as he watched TV, killing him. Jim’s 11-year-old brother witnessed the crime; had Little known that he was related to the young man he’d just murdered, he’d have shot him too.

33 years later, a documentary program wants the two men to meet and reconcile on live television. Little (Neeson), who’d served 12 years in prison for his crimes, had come out a changed man, working with people in war zones on conflict resolution, trying to teach people to solve their issues without violence and stop the cycle he watched tear his country apart.

Griffin (Nesbitt) has never fully recovered from the incident. His mother blamed him for not stopping the murder of his brother; Joe for his part isn’t sure she’s not right. Married and with two daughters of his own, he is a broken man – oh, he’s normal enough on the outside, but his demons torture him on the inside, turning him into a man who endlessly fidgets, tormented by things only he can see.

You see, Joe’s reason for going on the program is more simple and direct than reconciliation. He intends to kill the man who murdered his brother on live television. He’s brought a knife with him for that very purpose.

The murder of Jim Griffin actually took place as described, and both Joe Griffin and Alistair Little were participants as described. The documentary show is complete fiction; the two men have not met and it is unlikely they ever will. They both consulted with the filmmakers on the script, however.

You would think that both the reality and the fictional situation would make for compelling drama, but German director Hirschbiegel (Downfall) and screenwriter Guy Hibbert don’t deliver. The script is a talky one, with the two men not meeting until the final scenes. Much of the exposition is done through flashbacks and dialogue between the two men and the chauffeurs driving them to the television taping. That makes for some lifeless cinema.

The movie is redeemed by the performances of the two leading men, and they couldn’t be more disparate. Neeson’s Alistair is dead-eyed and drained, something vital inside him killed by the same act that tore apart the Griffin family. Alistair had been gung ho to make his mark on the Troubles, never realizing what the consequences would be of that act to his life. Alistair has had to live with those consequences, and the price is terrible indeed. 

Nesbitt gives us a Joe who is so filled with rage he can’t sit still. He masks his pain with one-liners and bonhomie, but the anger surfaces in subtle ways, especially now that the murder is much on his mind with the television program bringing it all back. He is obsessed with vengeance, equating it with justice.

The movie’s denouement is a bit of a letdown, but once again it is saved by the powerful performances of Nesbitt and Neeson. I would have preferred a movie that wasn’t so static and had a bit more juice to it, and considering the subject matter I think it would have naturally occurred. It’s a shame, because the actors and the concept deserved a better movie.

WHY RENT THIS: Nesbitt and Neeson deliver terrific performances. The concept is a compelling one.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie is very talky, with much of the exposition coming from conversations between the two principals and their drivers.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a brutal, bloody murder early on, and plenty of foul language throughout. The subject matter is complex enough that I’d warn away the little ones.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally broadcast on BBC2 on April 5, 2009 before being given a theatrical release in the United States.



TOMORROW: My Sister’s Keeper