Into the West
directed by Mike Newell
(Miramax, 1992)

A modern fable, a tale of culture clash, a look at Irish-on-Irish violence -- call it what you will, few recent films pack the emotional punch of Into the West, a 1992 independent production starring Gabriel Byrne and featuring Ellen Barkin.

The story itself is as simple as the love of a boy for a horse, which is what the story's about, at least in the beginning.

Seven-year-old Ossie (Ciaran Fitzgerald) lives -- if you can call it that -- in a gray slab of a housing project on the outskirts of Dublin, with his older brother Tito (Ruaidhri Conroy) and his father, John "Papa" Riley (Byrne), an Irish tinker who's given up the gypsy life to live among the settled folk.

Things are not easy for Riley, who's been on a liquid diet since Ossie's mother died in childbirth -- refused entrance to a hospital because she, like Riley, was a "traveler." Now his sons have taken to raising themselves on the streets of Dublin, where they exist on a diet of chocolate bars, old westerns and tales their grandfather tells them -- gypsy fables of mythic proportion but little practicality.

Things might have gone on like this forever were it not for the appearance of a high-spirited white horse which follows Ossie home -- all the way into the shower -- much to the dismay of the neighbors and the board of health.

Things don't get really tricky, though, until a corrupt cop with no love for travelers sees the horse clear a cruiser and gets dollar signs in his eyes. Suddenly, all the green is not in the shamrocks. But the police officer's plan to sell the horse takes a flying leap when Ossie and Tito spot the horse in a jumping competition and hijack it right out of the arena, initiating a manhunt only slightly smaller than World War II.

It's in the course of the manhunt that the film really takes off, as the boys head out, bareback, where else, but Into the West. That's good news or bad, of course, depending on who you are and how you view the West.

Is it a primitive land where kids run around ragged with their behinds falling out of their trousers, as Riley would have it, or the primordial homeland calling them back to the life of the traveler, as grandfather says? Or are Ossie and Tito simply about to realize their lifelong dream and become cowboys?

The answer's a mystery until they reach the beach.

Unfortunately, not everything in Into the West works as it should. Some of the plot elements are so predictable they're painful, and some scenes are sentimental to the point of embarrassment.

But where it works, West works well. And no place does it work better than in the performances of Fitzgerald and Conroy, who, though they receive secondary billing rate primary screen time.

Unlike the hyphenated mall rats of Hollywood, Fitzgerald and Conroy offer winning portrayals that work because they're never smug or self-conscious.

Whether they're plodding along on horseback singing "Let's go riding, way out west," or diving into the popcorn bin of a theater where they spend a night on the lam, the resourceful pair act like two real boys off on a real adventure, and interact like two brothers who've learned to love one another as a means to survival.

Fables will come and go. Cultures will clash. People will do violence to their own. And the Irish will tell stories. May they all be as harrowing, and as heartwarming, as Into the West.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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