17 October 2012

What Richard Did: Review (spoiler-heavy)

WARNING: This is partly a review and partly a discussion of the film What Richard Did and it is absolutely laden with spoilers, up to and including the ending. Unless you've seen the film yourself, please don't read it! And go see the film. It's terrific.

What Richard Did is an Irish film directed by Lenny Abrahamson. It is loosely based on Kevin Power's book Bad Day in Blackrock, which was itself loosely based on the tragic killing of teenager Brian Murphy outside Club Anabel's, for which four other teenagers stood trial. Even if you have read Power's book or know the ultimate outcome of the real-life court proceedings, you may be surprised by the direction taken by What Richard Did.

Richard Karlsen, played brilliantly by Jack Reynor,  is handsome, popular and rich ("Super Rich!", as he is called, half-jokingly, by a team-mate). He is the captain of his school's rugby team. He is eighteen years old and enjoying the summer before he goes to college. He has a car, free access to his parents' beach house and plenty of spending money. He is polite to his friends' parents and to his own. He is affectionate to his friends, hugging both boys and girls when he meets them. He watches out for younger members of the group, intervening to protect the vulnerable when necessary. He is successful with girls, using his golden boy charm to great effect - although an amusing early scene between the boys indicates just how ignorant and ill-informed they are about girls. His parents trust him and are proud of him. They also have high expectations of him, which he consistently meets and exceeds. Although he is only eighteen, he is treated as an adult, free to do what he wants, when he wants. Richard's life is a charmed one and it is easy to look at him and see his whole glorious life laid out in front of him, an endless series of successes and kudos.

When Richard falls for Lara (Roisin Murphy), the girlfriend of his team-mate Conor (Sam Keeley), he is easily able to win her over but once they are together, his insecurity and jealousy over her continuing friendship with Conor begins to cause problems. Richard wants everything to be perfect - he wants Conor to bow out and acknowledge that the better man won, he wants Lara to prove herself to his parents so that they approve of her and he also wants her to stop seeing Conor. On the night of a house-party, Richard has a row with Lara, Conor intervenes, and a fight starts. Richard's other team-mates help him and the three boys beat Conor. Lara sees the beating and tries to stop it. After Conor is on the ground, Richard goes back and kicks him viciously. As the boys move away to go home, they look back to see Conor staggering to his feet.

The next morning, Richard wakes to a bruised nose and a hangover. His parents are tranquilly reading the papers and listening to the news. Richard is horrified to hear that the body of an eighteen year old man was found at a house-party in Dublin 4. Without saying anything to his parents, he calls his friends together and they try to get their stories straight. Each of the boys feels they have as much to lose as the others, but Richard knows that he is the one who kicked Conor and that this must have been what killed him. While the boys think they can get away with it if they just hang tough, Lara is the wild-card. Eventually, she tells Richard she lied to the Gardai and covered for him and the other boys, but is horrified by his selfish concern for himself and his lack of concern for Conor. Richard gives a statement to the Gardai, placing the blame on some gate-crashers who had started an earlier fight and removing any suspicion from himself or his friends.

It is at this point that the film truly becomes fascinating. The golden world of Richard and his friends has been so carefully and so brilliantly constructed that watching it crack and threaten to shatter is horrifying. Richard tries his best to keep his secret to himself but ultimately, under pressure from his father, who thinks Richard is covering for others, he ends up clinging to his father, teary-eyed and confessing everything to him. Richard's father does not handle it well. While clearly this is the kind of nightmare that no parent would ever be prepared for, Richard's father's reaction is shocking. He abruptly leaves Richard, walking away from his only child at his most vulnerable time. He later tells Richard that he should go to the beach-house for a time and that he will get in touch with him. Richard agrees as though this is a perfectly normal request. The father who seemed so loving, so affectionate, so proud of his son, does not want to face the flaws in the child he raised. For me, this reaction was extremely telling. Richard's drive to succeed and excel, his need for his girlfriend to perform well so that his father would approve of her and the insecurity and jealousy that ultimately led him to attack Conor, make perfect sense for the son of such a father. There are other moments in the film where it is made clear that Richard's father is busy and successful (hence the family's wealth) and not very available to his son. Before Richard gives his statement to the Gardai, he calls his father at work, but couldn't get him to come to the phone and so he goes alone and uncounselled by a parent. Right before Richard confesses to his father, the father tells a story of how Richard had begged him to build him a treehouse but when he didn't get around to it, the nine-year-old Richard began it by himself, thus forcing his father to assist him. This father-son relationship that seems so close from the outside is in reality built on very shaky foundations and will only work as long as Richard continues to be the perfect son. When Richard confesses "I killed him" to his father, his father's reaction is never about the ultimate truth of what his son did - about how he took the life of another child and how that is to be paid for. 

Richard's father seems to me to be concerned with rebuilding the facade - something that will never happen if Richard confesses. He never advises him to speak to a solicitor or the Gardai; he also does not even seem to think about the tremendous burden of guilt and fear Richard must be carrying. He sends Richard away while he uses some of his influence to find out the angle the Gardai are working from and if Richard is in danger or not. It does not seem to occur to him that sending his child away by himself at this terrible time in the boy's life could be dangerous. It certainly occurred to me, as I watched Richard alone in the beach-house, screaming his fear and agony into the couch cushions, curled up and crying in his bed, walking sombrely along the beach or sobbing so hard he vomited, that this was a boy who could quite easily have tried to end his own life. But Richard's father treats him as an adult, not a teenager, and perhaps this is part of the problem. Richard tries to act like an adult but he is not truly an adult yet. At his age, he is still young enough to sometimes need his parents very badly. His father fails him in this regard. He fails to advise Richard to face up to what he has done. He assists him in covering it up. But he also fails to help Richard to work through what he is feeling. He abandons him. He seems only to want to preserve the illusion of the status quo. And Richard's mother is never given an opportunity to support him or help him make a good decision, because both father and son tacitly agree to keep her entirely in the dark.

After being permitted to return to the family home, Richard has to face his coach and his team-mates at a gathering in memory of Conor. He is able to tell one of the other boys involved in Conor's death that the Gardai are not going to come after them; the third boy had earlier refused to continue his friendship with Richard. Afterwards, he goes knacker-drinking with some members of the junior rugby team, slipping back into his golden boy persona, though it is now very clearly a mask that he is having difficulty keeping on. He ends the evening by seducing the much-younger daughter of his coach, who he had earlier in the film protected from another boy, shouting at him that "She's just a kid!". This betrayal was compounded by the fact that the girl in question was involved with one of the junior team who hero-worshipped Richard. This particular sequence made me really question how much of Richard's personality as revealed at the start of the film was really him and how much was the invented persona. His need to be liked and to be popular meant there was no currency in him upsetting people or misbehaving. He clearly disliked it very much when Conor was upset with him over Lara and he was initially very quick to apologise for upsetting Lara herself. Richard the Golden Boy was the invention of Richard the insecure boy and it was such a successful persona that it ultimately almost became him.

After a harrowing funeral service, in which Conor's mother begs for those who know what happened to her son to come forward and tell the truth, Richard breaks down outside the church and is comforted by Lara. They go away together to the beach house where they talk about running away together. Richard makes the decision to come clean and go to the Gardai. He talks about how making this decision means he can "breathe again", which I found very affecting. While religion makes almost no appearance in What Richard Did, the catharsis of confession and repentence is something Catholics are taught from childhood. I think that Richard's decision to confess was ultimately selfish, although it was prompted by Conor's mother pleading for closure - he did not decide to confess because it was the right thing to do but because he felt he could not live with the guilt of what he had done. Even in an increasingly secularised society, conscience and guilt are still very powerful. 

It would take an extraordinary amount of courage for someone who is not even suspected of a crime to confess to it, especially when that person is a very young man whose confession, conviction and punishment would destroy the life he could otherwise have led. Ultimately, Richard lacked that courage. In the final scenes of the film, we see Richard (quieter perhaps, certainly less glowing) attending college in UCD and studying at the table in his parents' house, having discovered, as many have before him, that it is perfectly possible to live with guilt.


  1. Just one remark on an otherwise great review:
    you say that confessing should be done because it's the right thing to do, not because we feel guilty and therefore to assuage our guilt.
    But might it not be that the guilt is the voice of our conscience telling us that we haven't done the right thing - and therefore actually helping (goading, pushing, reminding) us to tell the truth.
    In that respect, a healthy dose of guilt when we've done something wrong is a good thing and helps us do the right thing. It's worrying when we get used to living with guilt - something gets silenced in us - and it becomes even harder to do the right thing - as the end of the film suggests.

  2. Yeah, that's definitely one way of looking at it. An underdeveloped conscience leads to less guilt and therefore fewer reminders of the right path to take. When Richard realised he could live with it, he didn't have to confess to feel better. He could just move on.

  3. Very good review. I would like permission to translate it, as part of a project.

    1. Hi Y, sorry, I didn't see your comment til now. You're welcome to translate the review if you still want to. Thanks! :-)

  4. Your review cleared up everything I could not understand. Many thanks.

  5. I just watched the movie and I needed something like this to understand the end.

  6. In my opinion the ending of this film is indeed selfish? However, as you attribute "selfishness" to be that of Richards', I believe the selfishness to be that of all those on the set of this film who had any influence (decision making ability) on the films ending as well any financial stake or interest that would benefit themselves if the film ended in a manner that would lead to public opinion debate? Obviously it has or there would not be any comments published that discuss the ending of the film. After reading your review and the comments published before mine that only differed regarding "whether or not Richard's decision to confess was the right or wrong thing to do?", I realized that the Ending of the Movie was an intentional effort to promote financial gain and those responsible for this selfishness passed it off to the general public to discuss (debate) so they could hide behind the character of "Richard", the character who they use to be the subject matter of the "right or wrong" debates taking place as well as the character used to absorb the comments made about one's integrity that frequently occur whenever public opinion is so divided. In short, I enjoyed this film until I saw the Greediness and Selfishness displayed in the Ending:)! If nobody can see that the film was ruined by its' Ending (motive used to increase one's personal wealth only) then so be it! I am merely leaving this one comment to bring up my viewpoint that is not meant to be debated? It will not be by me:)! So, in short, I'll leave it here and not give the Film Makers' what they want:)! In my opinion that would be nearly as exhausting as debating the "Right and/or Wrong Public Opinion about Abortion:)!!!

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  9. I just saw the film and it made me feel so strange. Finally he doesn't confess? I feel sorry for him actually, it's a situation where you don't know what to do, it must be horrible.

    At the end of the movie you can see a scene where appears The Burlington Hotel, outside that place died the real boy in 2000, Brian Murphy :(