The 30th anniversary of Galway’s Film Fleadh opens with a debut set in a small Donegal town

Belly Of The Whale

Source: Fastnet Films

The Belly Of The Whale

Dir. Morgan Bushe. Ireland. 2018. 83 mins

Morgan Bushe salutes the Coen Brothers in his Irish western The Belly Of The Whale, a darkly humorous, intriguing debut which trips over its own ambition but continuously tries to right itself. With veteran actors Michael Smiley and Pat Shortt working overtime to prop up young Scottish actor Lewis McDougall (Pan, A Monster Calls), Belly is a flawed work, albeit one of promise.

Bushe has a tendency to sacrifice clarity for visual flourishes

Opening the 30th anniversary edition of Galway’s Film Fleadh, Bushe’s Fastnet Films-backed feature – which he also co-wrote and -produced – may be a calling card for the director as a visual innovator, but this relatively simple story about a young runaway orphan and a flailing alcoholic who team up to confront the town heavy may struggle to survive in commercial waters.

DoP Arthur Mulhern and production designer Michael Moynahan construct a visual chamber piece, centred around a derelict caravan park and a grotty small-town amusement arcade. Janis Dvics’ arresting, Birdman-like score takes its cues from the ringing slot machines. Yet the story tends to get lost somewhere in between. A sense of place is similarly missing: supposedly Donegal, this is a town where everyone sports a different Irish accent and the young lead seems to come, without any particular reason, from Scotland.

Aged 15, Joe Moody (McDougall) has run away from his foster family to revisit his family’s abandoned caravan park and reunite with his best friend. Effective flashbacks recall a close relationship with his father, now deceased, and the reason for this death is a muddled plot point whose significance seems to have suffered in the mix. Also of confused origins is the character of shambling alcoholic Ronald Tanner (Shortt), who turns up in the leisure centre trying to sell Chinese teddy bears to its grimy owner Gits (Smiley).

Eventually, the story swims into focus although Bushe has a tendency to sacrifice clarity for visual flourishes. These are, however, easy on the eye, from the interiors of the rusting caravans to the neon-lit droop of the dingy arcade. Rigging up a shopping trolley to a motorbike for Joe and Ronny is one of many resonant images which stud the 83-minute film. The costume department also has a good time, cramming the vermillion-faced Shortt into a series of grimy wife-beaters and flared pantsuits and, on one occasion, a dented old beekeeper hat. The nod to the American indie is present throughout.

What’s missing, though, is heart. Joe and Ronald’s relationship seems forged suddenly out of nowhere, with McDougall as out of his depth as his character. Shortt and Smiley typically deliver the goods for their outisized characters, and their presence has a calming effect even when the film, and the viewer, becomes distracted and lost in the bright lights of the penny arcade.

Production companies: Fastnet Films/Tilted Pictures

International sales: Fastnet Films

Producers: Rory Dungan, Morgan Bushe

Screenplay: Morgan Bushe, Greg Flanagan

Production design: Michael Moynahan

Editing: Derek Holland, John Walters

Cinematography: Arthur Mulhern

Music: Janis Dvics

Main cast: Lewis MacDougall, Pat Shortt, Lauren Kinsella, Michael Smiley, Art Parkinson, Peter Coonan 

There’s a strong sense that Belly may have been shot and edited before it was fully ready. A rethink may yet solve these problems.