(Obligatory SPOILERS warning. This isn’t just a review; it is an analysis and a very long, detailed one at that. God see the movie first or read at your peril…)
I love this movie. It has plot holes the size of a Winnebago, several times the plot devolves from mysterious to murky, the pacing can be wonky, at times it is eye-rollingly illogical, the special effects are just awful and probably unnecessary, and the ending is maddeningly unresolved. But when weighed against perfect casting, fantastic performances, the genius of stripping all the typical glamor away from Celtic fantasy and juxtaposing the grim reality of using magic for day-to-day survival with the bleak day-to-day survival of living in council estates, more than makes up for its imperfections.
Oh, and there’s a monster, too.
But even though the movie is supposed to center around this creature stalking Mary (the helplessly brilliant Kate Dickie) and her son Fergal (Niall Bruton), while simultaneously being stalked by vengeful, power-hungry Cathal (James fucking Nesbitt, who is obviously having a blast playing waaaay against character), I felt that the monster was incidental…almost irrelevant. It was the gritty, deeply personal, cat and mouse dynamic between Mary and Cathal which makes Outcast worth watching. It’s a fascinating grudge-match, fueled by the malignant intimacy of shameful complicity for creating a curse that has ruined them both. If anything, the monster itself is anti-climatic by comparison.
Besides the outstanding, gut-level performances by Dickie and Nesbitt–and in a softer vein, by the underrated Hannah Stanbridge as Fergal’s love interest, Petronella–the brilliance of Outcast lies in director Colm McCarthy’s (The Girl with All the Gifts) determination to remove all the beauty and exoticism typical of even the darkest fantasy. Mary’s powers are not wondrous gifts–they are gritty tools of survival, a dangerously worn battle shield; in Cathal’s ruthless hands, a crude weapon. But it is apparent, that even if not faced with the desperate poverty that comes living the life of a sort of mystical outlaw, never being able to settle in one place for long, that her people are also living on the fringes of society, careful not to reveal who they truly are–the aos si or the sidhe.
If you are not well-versed on Irish mythology (I wasn’t), the aos si/sidhe were descended from the Tuatha Dé Daanan, pre-Christian Gaelic deities. After a series of battles, they were driven underground into Otherworld, seen as fairy mounds (no, not those kind of flitty, silly fairies; that was a dumbass Victorian invention); aos si translates to “People of the Mounds”. No longer deities, they are a magical but mortal race, a sort of conquered nation; in Outcast, Mary’s clan are portrayed as Irish Travellers–an marginalized, itinerant ethnic group and, judging by the beatass caravans parked in fields of muck, likewise poverty-stricken. The sidhe live parallel with humans but not amongst them. Like Mary, they have to stay one step ahead or risk exposure. McCarthy goes out of his way not to romanticize the Sidhe or their powers–whatever powers the sidhe might possess, it has not brought them riches.
Cathal, on the other hand, feels contempt for their magical integrity (? I just made that up). “All this power and you do NOTHING!”, he later tells one of the sidhe. Now, years after breaking a serious taboo with the Sidhe–they reluctantly offer him a proposal–the elder (?) chieftain (?) leader (?) and presumably Mary’s father will grant him “new skin” ie tattoo his back with runic symbols which will grant him the power of enchantment for one moon; if he manages to track down and dispatch Fergal, those powers will become permanent–but as he leaves, the old man pointedly reminds Cathal that he is to kill the boy only.
Meanwhile, as he is gritting his teeth and sweating bullets (big pansy; I’ve 10 hours of work on my back and I barely blinked an eye), Mary and Fergal have settled in a Greendyke estate flat that looks like a cross between a chicken coop and a demilitarized zone, though the state of it isn’t Mary’s concern; it’s the safety. She finds a bird’s egg in the window (seriously, there are finer outhouses); as she cracks it, it crumbles to dust…which for some reason is good.
Unfortunately, these divinations and signs are never explained…and are probably completely made up, anyway…though there is definitely a running bird theme throughout the movie (though the birds consistently get the shit end of the deal, there). The runic symbols she paints on the walls are easier to understand; as Cathal and Liam (later to be revealed as Mary’s brother) set out on their mission, Mary awakens with a start. Mixing some of her blood with paint she hurriedly covers the walls in protective runes to remain hidden from anybody who might mean them harm.
The next day, she surrounds their janky van with a ring of gasoline. “This is the end of the road,” she says and sets it ablaze. Again–no explanation why this is the end of the road, though I suspect it has to do with Fergal coming of age. One of the more frustrating aspects of Outcast is that too often, what was probably meant to be enigmatic is actually opaque. I mean, I don’t need a damn primer to watch a movie; a bit of mystery is fine…but for fuck’s sake, how about now and then let us in on the joke?
Fergal, by necessity, has grown up so completely isolated that he is beyond pathologically shy–he practically pulls into himself. But he is a decent sort and allows Toma, a young man with developmental disabilities to pet his dog…which impresses his pretty sister, Petronella, played by Hannah Stanbridge (Let Us Prey). Petronella is Fergal’s Romani neighbor, and, due to their mother’s degenerate alcoholism, Toma’s de facto guardian.
Petronella is as bold as Toma is shy, but still shows glimpses of vulnerability and longing. And judging by the jacked-face, misogynistic chav loser she’s been running with–and dumps, epically–it’s pretty goddamn clear why she would put heavy moves on a quiet, moderately attractive boy who is kind to her brother.
Once in Edinburgh, Cathal and Liam, who is acting as a sort of magical mentor, meet with the Laird–apparently, a sidhe of the same rank as the Irish elder–to ask his permission to hunt the beast. The Laird is deeply unimpressed with Cathal, though it isn’t clear if that is because he knows about Cathal’s shady history or just because he came in like a swaggering dick-savior, confident that, since he shared Fergal’s blood (big NOT spoiler–Cathal is Fergal’s father), the Laird had no other choice. Before he will even consider allowing it, he makes Liam vouch for Cathal and that he had to consult and tell them his answer the following day.
Cathal doesn’t take kindly to being called a monkey–a running theme in Outcast is Cathal’s lack of character, integrity and certainly, patience. It is implied that–probably because he’s a low-life human–the sidhe approach their powers with a certain amount of reverence or at least don’t misuse them for vulgar purposes. There is a certain order, yes, but there is also a certain respect for ritual and intent…which Cathal clearly lacks. He’s tweaking from the new power and is feeling, well, pent-up, so he leaves Liam to go get a skinful to calm his nerves. While it isn’t explicitly said, drinking is frowned upon; I’m guessing sidhe magic requires a clear head. Liam cautions him against it, but to no avail. Because Cathal is foolish like that.