No one wins at the crying game

I missed a lot of movies in the 90s on account of being young at the time, and I’ve been making a halfhearted attempt at going back and watching some of them. The Crying Game popped up on Netflix one late night, and, knowing nothing about it except for the infamous reveal, and also being impressed by the cast, I decided to give it a shot.

I wasn’t disappointed at all (except for Miranda Richardson, who seems like she’s always miscast), and in fact, was surprised. In fact, I believe The Crying Game is among the best films of the 90s. It’s a remarkably progressive film for its time, beginning a conversation about human sexuality and the complexity of a constantly more liberalized social scene – a conversation we’re still having today, albeit with more specific terms.

If you’ve never seen The Crying Game, you may want to stop reading about now. I feel this movie is beyond the statute of limitations for spoilers, and you can expect spoilers to appear below.

It all begins when misguided Fergus (Stephen Rea, who looks younger, but never quite looked young) gets caught up in an IRA plot to intercept a military transport and hold some British soldiers hostage. They’re sending a message. Fergus is put in charge of monitoring young Jody (Forest Whitaker) while the masterminds of this scheme (Richardson’s IRA mistress Jude, which she is wholly unconvincing at portraying) do their thing. Tied and bound, Jody tries to strike up a conversation. Fergus recognizes this for what it is – an attempt by Jody to humanize himself with his captor, making it a more difficult moral problem for Fergus when it comes time to pull the trigger.

He strikes a few times, but they eventually hit it off. Jody talks of his life, his lover named Dil; he asks about Fergus’s life. In the intervening hours, they learn a lot about each other. When the British Army rolls in on a rescue mission, Fergus can’t bring himself to kill Jody.

Jody does die, though. He gets hit by a tank as Fergus watches. Fergus takes an opportunity to snatch up some of Jody’s personal effects and escape undetected, determined to track down Dil.

He finds Dil easily enough, although Fergus travels incognito as “Jimmy” to distance himself from his past with the IRA. Dil is a hairdresser who sings karaoke at a nearby bar, The Metro. The two are introduced by the bartender, Col, played by Jim Broadbent, who makes me want to spend every night of my life at a bar tended by Jim Broadbent.

“Jimmy” ends up falling for Dil. She’s mysterious, attractive, unique, and has a dark air about her. It’s easy to see Jody’s attraction to her. They grow very close, and when they grow intimate, Dil drops her robe revealing that she is really a he. The writer/director, Neil Jordan (who, I discovered, also directed the tremendous The Brave One with Jodie Foster), takes his time showing you this in a slow, vertical panning shot that forces the audience to address Dil’s reality in the same way that Fergus must.

Fergus tries to come to grips with the fact of his intimacy with another man posing as a woman. His reasoning, again, is much like ours. We should have seen this coming (Dil is played by a man, after all, Jaye Davidson, probably better known as the sun god Ra in Roland Emmerich‘s disasterpiece Stargate). All the pieces fall into place – The Metro is a drag bar, and virtually everyone there except the bartender is masquerading!

But so is Fergus. He still hasn’t revealed his true identity to Dil. His past life soon comes back to haunt him, as past lives tend to do, and he must make a choice to shed himself of his history with the IRA and his misguided self of yore, which puts Dil – the unanticipated object of his affection – in danger.

The Crying Game, in 1992, presents a topic that is rarely confronted honestly in cinema, and it handles that with grace and humanity. In a way, it’s still difficult to have a conversation about this kind of thing. How do you discuss this with someone? Is Dil transgender? A cross-dresser? A drag queen? Are those terms offensive? Jordon presents this all to us without monikers, which is really the best approach to a story like this.

These characters approach us in disguise. We don’t know whether to say Dil is one of those things. Dil presents herself as a woman, even if she thinks it’s obvious that she’s not exactly that. Is it safe to call Jody gay? He isn’t presented here as a stereotype – he isn’t flamboyant, and in his brief time in the film, he never gives us any indication that he might be gay. Even Fergus must covertly insert himself into Jody’s life to determine that. And how are we to describe Fergus’s sexuality? He’s initially disgusted by his own attraction to Dil once he realizes that Dil’s not been entirely truthful, but he knows and comes to terms with the fact that he’s not been truthful either.

All we know is that these characters are human, and they’re all having to deal with situations and emotions they aren’t expecting.

When Jody is under Fergus’s watch at the beginning of the film, he tells Fergus a parable, which “Jimmy” later recounts to Dil.

Well… there’s this scorpion, you see, and he wants to go across a river. Well, he can’t swim so he goes to this frog, who naturally enough can swim. And he says, “Excuse me, Mr. Froggy. I want to go across the river.” So the frog accepts the idea. The scorpion hops on the frog’s back. Suddenly, the frog: “Aah!” He feels this sting! “You stung me! Why did you go and do that?” The scorpion looks at him and says, “I can’t help it, it’s in my nature”.

That’s the point of The Crying Game. It doesn’t matter what label you apply to these things. The truth is that the complex emotions that guide our decisions are all part of human nature, like it or not. That’s the crying game, and it often ends up without a winner.

It’s rare to see a movie treat human sexuality this frankly. Only Transamerica and Shortbus come to mind at the moment. Maybe it takes a British film from the 90s to see that even in an age where the acceptance of non-cisgender orientations is only spreading wider, Hollywood is afraid of talking about sex. Recall that John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus had to be made outside the studio system and wasn’t able to receive a wide theatrical release on account of how explicitly it depicts the sex acts of its characters, who are real people before they are actors. Even Transamerica was dishonest in its execution; the pre-op m2f transgender protagonist was actually played by Felicity Huffman, not a physical male. If The Crying Game has a peer, I’ve never heard of it.