The 9th Annual Rule, Britannia Blogathon: Into the West (1992)

This post is part of the 9th Annual Rule, Britannia Blogathon, hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts. Read the rest of the ripping post HERE!

Magic realism is probably one of the hardest genres to pull off successfully. Sometimes creators make it too fantastical; others too realistic. The balance is key.

A beautiful example of that perfect balance is the 1992 film Into the West, written by James Sheridan and directed by Mike Newell.

The film opens showing a gorgeous white stallion running along a beach. It begins to follow an old Irish Traveller (David Kelly). He realizes the horse is following him and deliberately leads it to Dublin where his son-in-law John “Papa” Reilly (Gabriel Byrne) lives with his sons Tito (Ciarán Fitzgerald) and Ossie (Rúaidhrí Conroy) in public housing.

Papa is still so consumed with grief over the death of his wife Mary he does little other than drink in between fixing cars. He, too, was a Traveller, but took his children off the road to the city, believing it would be better for them. He resents his father-in-law trying to talk him into going back to the Traveller life.

The grandfather gives the children the horse, who he has named Tír na nÓg, which means the land of eternal youth. The boys, who love American Westerns, fancy themselves as cowboys now that they have the horse.

They try to keep the horse in the apartment, which of course doesn’t fly with the neighbors, who call the police. The cops confiscate the horse. Ossie, who has shown a remarkable affinity for communicating with the horse, begs his father to do something. Too drunk and weak, his father lets them take the horse away.

Tito and Ossie find out the horse has been bought by a rich man. The boys manage to steal the horse, touching off a cross-country race as corrupt police and the rich man try to retrieve Tír na nÓg. The two boys are delighted to find out there’s a price on their heads. They are true Western outlaws being chased by a real posse.

Desperate to find the boys, Papa goes to an encampment of Travellers and begs the tracker to help him. The tracker refuses, bitter over how Papa, who was once their “king,” abandoned them. Two other Travellers, Kathleen (Ellen Barkin) and Barreller (Colm Meany) agree to help him find them.

They soon realize the horse seems to have a purposeful itinerary, as it is leading them to the old places Papa and Mary used to go, right up to Mary’s grave. Tired, hungry, and lonely for Papa, the boys try to turn back, but the horse won’t let them. The journey finally ends at the same beach the horse first appeared, with a confrontation with the police and a magical experience for Ossie.

As I said, the balance of magic and realism is very impressive in this film. The two boys have a grim life and could be the subject of a “kitchen sink” drama. But this isn’t just about escaping the grim reality of their existence. This is a story about working through grief and finding your true self. It’s not really the kids’ movie, even though their adventures are delightful (my favorite is when they stay overnight in a movie theater and watch Back to the Future III—a Western—with the horse). They also have a significant character arc.

But truly this story is about Papa and his refusal to be who he really is, who thinks he can shrug off being a Traveller (his wife died because she was denied medical care out of prejudice). He can never stop being one, and he harms himself and his children unintentionally when he won’t face that fact. Once a strong enough leader to be appointed king of the Travellers, he has to find that strength again, to protect his children and finally say goodbye to Mary so her spirit can rest.

Not only does the film balance magic and realism, it also tackles diverse and serious themes such as identity, myth, and social unrest while still finding ways to be humorous and hopeful.

Add the spectacular Irish vistas, heartfelt performances, and a lovely score (by Patrick Doyle) inspired by Irish folk music and you have a very special film.


4 thoughts on “The 9th Annual Rule, Britannia Blogathon: Into the West (1992)

  1. Oh, this sounds like wonderful movie. I love magical realism when it works (as you said, it’s all about the balance). I also love horses, so I have a feeling I would really like Into the West. Anyway, thank you for taking part in the blogathon!

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