If there was a theme for the 2023 Venice Film Festival lineup it would most certainly be hitmen. This year Venice attendees have been given a slew of films centred around assassins. From the good; David Fincher’s The Killer, the bad; Harmony Korine’s Aggro Dr1ft to the downright delightful; Richard Linklater’s surprising crowdpleaser Hit Man.
Robert Lorenz’ In the Land of Saints and Sinners marks the fourth hitman film to debut on the Lido this year. That’s right, another one. But where does it rank amongst its fellow thematic competitors? It would be hard for any film in the program to top the obnoxious antics of Aggro Dr1ft but Saints and Sinners is unfortunately a middling action-thriller at best.
The film boasts a top-notch cast of reliable talent which includes three Academy Award nominees; Liam Neeson (Schindler’s List), Kerry Condon (The Banshees of Inisherin) and Ciarán Hinds (Belfast). The cast is giving it an honest try but not even they can save Saints and Sinners from mediocrity. Which quite frankly, is a worse fate than flat-out terrible. Despite its overwhelmingly abysmal response, at least Aggro Dr1ft got people talking about it.
From a screenplay by Terry Leona and Mark Michael McNally, Saints and Sinners is set in Northern Ireland in 1974 during a time of civil unrest and is primarily set in the forgotten county of Donegal.
The film starts with a bang when a squad of IRA terrorists, led by brother and sister duo Doireann McCann (Kerry Condon) and Curtis June (Desmond Eastwood), set off a car bomb killing six people in a small community.
As they flee the scene of the crime they make their getaway to the town of Gleann Cholm Ville – if you had difficulty reading that name you would be forgiven because as Doireann says “the best hideout spots are the places you can’t pronounce”.
In their haste, they swerve into the town’s welcome sign making the mystery of the obliterated sign the top priority of local copper Vinny O’Shea (Ciarán Hinds) who considers himself quite the switched-on detective.
But it’s not the police that they need to be worried about. This sleepy little village is also the home of Finbar Murphy (Liam Neeson). An unassuming fella, he blends in with any of the other townsfolk, kitted out in his flat cap, pipe and wellies. Finbar has Vinny and his neighbours convinced he’s an honest book-trader but actually, he’s a weathered old soul who has been working as a freelance hitman for a local chap called Robert McQue (Colm Meaney) since his wife Margaret passed away.
His method of execution involves driving his targets out to the furthest point of Donegal where he makes them dig their own graves at gunpoint before laying them to their eternal rest. He then plants a tree as a symbolic tombstone. There’s no mention of just how long he’s been in this line of work but judging by the number of planted trees of varying sizes, Finbar has been doing this for quite some time and it’s starting to weigh on him. He longs to leave his hitman days behind him but when the IRA terrorists cross paths with the neighbours he cares about, a deadly game of cat and mouse ensues.
Is Finbar a titular saint or a sinner? This is the question that the film explores. Like most of Neeson’s characters, they tend to occupy the space within the grey and Finbar is no exception.
We’re at a point where we know exactly what to expect from Liam Neeson film and I’m starting to get bored. Neeson seems to be enjoying this groove he’s carved out for himself as an unexpected late-in-life action star but the problem is he’s become too comfortable playing slightly different variations of the same gruff character that we’ve seen him do in countless films like the Taken franchise, Non-Stop and Honest Thief. It’s a perfectly serviceable performance but by no means does it feel like a stretch for him. Neeson is at his best here when he’s saying nothing and allows his soulful eyes to convey decades’ worth of remorse, guilt and regret.
However, it is Kerry Condon who has the most to work as the IRA pack ringleader Doireann. She is the one that walks the tightest rope between good and evil. Despite being willing to kill for her cause, even she has lines she would rather not cross. At the start of the film when the bomb plan goes awry, she risks blowing her cover to protect innocent children. And in one of the tensest scenes she sweetly talks and negotiates with a mother through a door who just witnessed Doireann killing a loved one of hers. It’s an oddly timed moment of compassion but illustrates there’s still some humanity in her.
Sadly where Condon and the rest of the IRA characters are let down is a lack of justification for their motivations. Yes, this is the time of the troubles but simply saying she’s “fighting for a free Ireland” is surface-level characterisation. We need more than just one broad all-encompassing statement to understand why they are willing to go to such violent extremes. Condon does her best to add some subtext to Doireann’s actions but the limitations of the vague writing are what’s holding her back.
This seems to be the main issue with Saints and Sinners. The screenplay by Terry Leona and Mark Michael McNally is their first feature and it shows. They get points for crafting an original screenplay but it needed a few more redrafts.
The plot itself prompts numerous questions and gives very few answers. Gleann Cholm Ville must be the Midsomer Murders of Northern Ireland because the script offers no explanation as to why the teeny town has enough need for an organised and thriving hitman business. How many vendettas could there possibly be in this one pub town? It’s a little farfetched.
But credit where it is due, Saints and Sinners is beautifully shot by cinematographer Tom Stern and Lorenz makes the most of the harsh and cold Irish landscape.
The music is also a highlight, composer Diego Baldenweg utilises fiddles, guitars and harmonicas to create a score that feels like a hybrid of folkish and western. Perfect for a redemptive character study.
In the Land of Saint and Sinners is by no means a bad film but it’s also nothing exceptional. At the end of the day this is fundamentally another film in a long line of Liam Neeson doing his Liam Neeson thing, It’s about as disposable and forgettable as they come.
In the Land of Saints and Sinners had its world premiere at the 2023 Venice Film Festival.