The Field (1990) keeps In America from being Jim Sheridan’s worst film, and I haven’t given up on him in light of the fact that the year before he made In America Sheridan executive-produced Paul Greengrass’s terrific Bloody Sunday (2001). In America, though, is a mess—at times a genial mess, but a mess. It pretty much commits every possible wrong with its material—material that is dubious to start with. On its side is one thing only: the charm of some of the acting, especially that of Samantha Morton, who is excellent as the wife and mother in a variously tormented Irish Catholic family.
Johnny and Sarah Sullivan and their two small daughters steal into the U.S. through Canada, joining the vast army of illegal immigrants in the Land of Opportunity. The film, with a script by Sheridan and daughters Naomi and Kirsten, has been promoted as being semi-autobiographical. In fact, Sheridan did enter the United States in the 1980s, but he did so legally, and he wasn’t impoverished; the artistic director of Dublin’s Project Arts Center, which he co-founded, came to New York City to fill the post of artistic director at the New York Irish Arts Center. During his stay, Sheridan also studied filmmaking at New York University. In the film, the man presumably based on the filmmaker is an actor struggling to get any kind of stage part, and his wife is an educator—a university professor, I think—who can’t find a teaching job. The only place they can afford to live is a tenement building inhabited by drug addicts. Sheridan is pulling our leg, or misremembering, to allow the fiction to circulate that In America is in any serious sense autobiographical.
Given this fact, something else about the film, which otherwise would be very moving, irritates. The couple in the film have had their little boy, Frankie, die of cancer. The film is dedicated to the memory of Frankie Sheridan—a child, I presume, that the director did in fact lose to cancer. Thus Sheridan draws his son into a film that in reality has little or nothing to do with Frankie Sheridan’s family, despite the use of the child’s first name. This dedication doesn’t honor Frankie Sheridan; it exploits his memory. The dedication is presented only after the film has concluded.
I regret to say that Sheridan’s film is of a piece with this heartless and inappropriate dedication.*
To begin with, the film skims issues it needs to address seriously in order to create a complex portrait of the world into which Sarah and Johnny and their daughters have moved. One would never guess from this film that in America strangers are apt to be inhospitably treated, or that racial and ethnic disharmony is rife. Nor is there a sense of the times. Ronald Reagan was a divisive U.S. president whose administration was pursuing a radical right-wing agenda, smoothing the way for the even more pronouncedly right-wing agenda that the current administration, George W. Bush’s, is pursuing—a connection to the present that Sheridan’s film ought to have reflected upon. Indeed, even the immigrant family’s purported poverty holds only passing interest to Sheridan, who seems unwilling to contextualize anything in the film except in relation to family history. The result adopts the color of the Sullivans’ own seemingly inexhaustible commitment to life in their new country. Only 11-year-old Christy, who narrates the film, snaps at her younger sister, 6-year-old Ariel, after the latter says “Cool!” that Ariel seems already “like an American”—that she has assimilated so quickly and easily, implying the difficult task this would be for others. We never really see the difficulty, either in its normal dimensions or in light of the depth of difficulty that a cold, unfriendly and “ruggedly individualistic” place such as the U.S. additionally imposes. Christy does tell Ariel at one point, “You don’t ask for help in America”; but this utterance makes all the more bewildering Sheridan’s failure to plumb its implications. I appreciate that New York City is one of the most sociable parts of the country; but even this “U.S. Paris” participates in the larger nation. We rarely, if ever, see the illegal Sullivans having a really rough time settling in. This is one reason why the entire film rings false.
Another is Christy’s perspective. Christy, exquisitely played by Sarah Bolger, has been falsely conceived by the Sheridans on two fronts. Frankie’s protracted agony culminating in his death has robbed Johnny of his faith in God, and, although she wears a cross and guides Christy in bedtime prayer each night, even Sarah is never shown in church. Christy, on the other hand, has used the tragedy of her brother’s death to forge a closer connection to God, from whom, by way of compensation for her loss, she has extracted the granting of three wishes, one of which smooths the way for the Sullivans to con authorities at the Canadian-U.S. border and enter the States. Another wish saves the rent money that her father is recklessly gambling away at an arcade booth. Sheridan generates bogus “suspense” over the substance of the final wish, but in the competition for it, in addition to the premature birth of a new sister that could cost Christy her mother’s life, is the downstairs neighbor, Mateo, a painter from Haiti who is hospitalized and dying of AIDS. Christy is indulging here in fantasy that is perfectly in keeping with a child’s mind; she is imaginatively compensating for how bereft and powerless her brother’s death has left her feeling. But Sheridan will not let the matter rest; he crosses Christy’s wishes with Mateo’s voodoo and draws a mystical connection between Mateo and the Sullivans, at one point crosscutting between Mateo’s splattering a blank canvas with his blood and semen and the Sullivans, upstairs, having sex and conceiving their new daughter. At the last, the baby is born, both mother and baby live, Mateo dies, and Johnny, unable to pay the $30,000 hospital bill (isn’t America grand?), learns that Mateo has already paid it. All this is presented as a happy resolution all-around. Whereas Alfred Hitchcock would have ironically reflected on the fact that spirituality in America is debased by the dollars-and-cents it reduces to (see Shadow of a Doubt, 1943, and Psycho, 1960), Sheridan gets warm and cozy. Clearly he is out to flatter a nation and a culture some of whose box-office he is attempting to garner.
Making Christy the touchstone for all these shenanigans is ridiculous. It crosses the line between childhood fantasy and cosmic “reality”; it gives power to the child in a sentimental rather than compensatory, hence psychological, way. Worse than even this, though, is the other way in which the character of Christy has been falsely conceived. Near the end comes a burst of rhetoric from this child. She informs her father that it is she who has been shouldering the responsibility for holding the family together since Frankie’s death. She and Sheridan apparently both believe this sentimental nonsense that disrespects such a film as Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero (1947), which seriously addresses the issue of circumstances imposing on a child responsibilities too burdensome for the child to bear. There is no limit to the heartlessness of Sheridan’s manipulative zeal as Christy reminds Johnny that she, too, has suffered the loss of Frankie, that he was her brother. I’m sorry; sibling loss isn’t at all comparable to parental loss. What Christy has had to endure, the loss of the brother she loved, is enormous; but it doesn’t compare to the enormity of what Sarah and Johnny have had to endure. In addition to losing the son they as dearly loved as Christy loved her brother, they have also lost their faith in a just cosmos (children are supposed to outlive parents), their confidence in themselves as parents, and their capacity to be as buoyed by hopes for the future as they once were. Frankie’s death has undercut and darkened everything else in their lives. It isn’t wrong of Sheridan to have given Christy, who is a child, the limited emotional understanding of a child, although it is inconceivable that any child would have come up with the tailored speech that Sheridan and his two daughters have put in her mouth. What is terribly wrong is the fact that Sheridan fails to contest Christy’s perspective with what should be the broader perspective that adult thought and adult experience have given him. Rather, his film seems to endorse Christy’s perspective—a sentimental and manipulative gesture.
Christy has one heartbreaking scene. She sings “Desperado” at a student show at the Catholic school in which her parents have enrolled her and her sister. Throughout the film we see her camcording moments and events, but now her parents have turned her camcorder on her as she poignantly sings lyrics no one her age should be able to comprehend:
Desperado, why don’t you come to your senses, You’ve been out ridin’ fences for so long now?
Oh, and you’re a hard one, but I know that you’ve got your reasons,
The things that are pleasin’ you can hurt you somehow. . . .
Desperado, you ain’t gettin’ no younger,
Your pain and your hunger, they’re drivin’ you home,
And freedom, oh freedom, well, that’s just some people talkin’.
Your prison is walking through this world all alone. . . .
Why does this work for me, but not her subsequent speech? Here, instead of a child’s sturdy self-importance and emotional arrogance, we see the child’s vulnerability; simultaneously, the poignancy lies in the discrepancy between the child’s limited perspective and the soreness and sorrowfulness of the lyrics, on the one hand, and in the child’s own genuine sorrow that allows her to find an intuitive home, beyond her means of comprehension, in this saddest of all American pop songs. The fragile quality of Christy’s voice as she sings is perfect; and we see in her appearance, with a cowgirl hat on top of her head, Christy’s utter ache to find a home in America, which correlates (beyond the means of my heart to bear) to the song’s sublime ache pertaining to finding a home anywhere on earth.
Even with the visual trickery of the camcorder-thing, this is a relatively calm, uncluttered moment in a film that, overall, must be accounted as every bit as visually strenuous, in terms of both agitated camera and hyperventilating editing, as Steven Spielberg’s despicable Schindler’s List (1993). Busy, busy, busy—and Sheridan couldn’t care less how much optical torture he inflicts. Christy’s singing her song is one of the rare instances of meaningful mise-en-scène in the film. (The Sullivans’ entrance to the city at night by way of the Holland Tunnel, with strange sights and sounds in abundance, provides earlier instances.) On the other hand, this may be strategic; the mess everywhere around it gives the “Desperado”-moment rare grace and depth. But one doesn’t watch a film for a single glowing moment.
Paddy Considine is over the top as Johnny, while Djimon Hounsou is sound as Mateo. Given the pseudomystical stuff with which his small role is burdened, it’s amazing how much real and particular humanity Hounsou manages to invest in his character. But the light of the film is Morton, whose Sarah is a brave, sharp woman fielding family ghosts and current hardships. Contrary to what Christy claims, it is Sarah whom I saw holding the family together. Sheridan has his eyes; I, mine. And I could scarcely take them off of Morton, whose emotionalism and close-cropped hair every now and then evoked memories of Falconetti’s Joan.
* I have been informed—I do not know whether this is the case—that I am incorrect in this. Frankie, apparently, is Sheridan’s still living brother, not deceased son. (Another reader, though, disputes even this, apparently, although his English is too haphazard for one to be certain.) Of course, the issue of exploitation on Sheridan’s part holds as steadfastly in either regard.