The latest film from Downfall director Oliver Hirschbiegel is a simple, straightforward, and very sincere story that covers some rather fascinating issues: The cyclical nature of violence, the difficulties inherent in forgiveness, and the importance of being able to defeat tragedy and go on to live a happy life. If it sounds like a dark and slightly depressing story to hear, well that's the good news. For all its stark honesty and confrontational emotions, the messages found in Five Minutes of Heaven are refreshingly humane and hopeful.
We open in mid-'70s Belfast, and a very young Alistair Little is about to commit a heinous act. Fueled by streetwise fury and a need to prove himself, Alistair assassinates another young man, leaving his little brother as the horrified witness to the act. Poor Joe Griffen has just began a cycle of tragedy that would defeat most people: Dead brother, accusing mother, heartbroken father ... one act of horrible violence leads to a ripple effect that virtually destroys Joe's life.
So when a TV series tracks him down, more than thirty years later, hoping to put victim and killer in the same room, Joe's first impulse is to grab a giant knife and plan some late-yet-well earned revenge. Alistair, for his part, is justifiably torutured by his memories, and he seems completely intent on helping Joe to heal. Problem is, for all of Alistair's good intentions, the simple fact is that he DID kill Joe's brother, and (in a roundabout way) destroyed Griffen's entire family. So, really, how is Joe supposed to forgive Alistair for his horrible crime? Lord knows I couldn't do it.
Fortunately, Hirschbiegel and screenwriter Guy Hibbert are much more interested in the emotional impact of this meeting, and not so much in the more ... salacious aspects of this story. Different filmmakers might frame the tale as a stark-yet-emotionally appealing "revenge" story, but Five Minutes of Heaven is interested in quite a bit more than simple revenge. After all, justifiable vengeance is just another way to keep the bloody cycle rolling, which means that at some point -- someone's simply going to have to turn the other cheek and let the past remain in the past.
Easier said than done, obviously.
Bolstered by a smart, insightful screenplay, directed with low-key style and restraint, and supported by two fantastic performances (Liam Neeson as the killer, James Nesbitt as the survivor), Five Minutes of Heaven shuffles some very difficult themes and emotions -- and it succeeds on sheer force of honesty, intelligence, and wisdom, This is a film that understands why a man would have every right to kill another one ... but it's also a film that wants to focus on what happens to the one who does the killing. Once his "five minutes of heaven" (aka sweet, cold revenge) are up.
Best of all, Five Minutes of Heaven is a movie that trades in harsh, dark material, but it never loses sight of the true nature of humanity. Joe craves retribution, he needs and deserves it ... but that doesn't mean he should get it. It's not a sudden and horrible crime that ruins a life; it's how one actively deals with the aftermath that defines his future.