Disco Pigs: The Cult of Beauty

Posted: 05/02/2010 in Flicks for Thought, The Verdict
Tags: , , , , ,

Disco Pigs: (Sheridan, 2001. ROI)

****Some spoilers****

I saw DiscoElaine Cassidy and Cillian Murphy in Disco Pigs Pigs on video many years ago, sourced at great length from the depths of my county library service, and I liked it but I was a little bewildered by some of the actions and motivations of the characters.  After not thinking about it for eons I was recently making a list of British and Irish films to blog about and this little flick came to mind. I was wondering how to track it down  when utterly coincidentally I was staying over at a house blessed with Freeview [that’s digital/cable type channels not available on terrestrial television- for overseas readers] and chanced upon it on Film4 at some unsociable hour. With the wisdom and emotional maturity that come with great age, it made far more sense this time round and my intervening Film Studies training meant I could appreciate the form far more.  I think this is a film people should see in adolescence and again in early adulthood; it’ll probably tell you something about yourself, or at least about your evolving understanding of people and the great intensity of youthful emotion.

Disco Pigs was written by Enda Walsh, based on her play of the same name and is a two-hander featuring my two favourite Irish actors, Cillian Murphy and Elaine Cassidy, (two of the Emerald Isle’s most bankable big screen exports, both of whom have transcended the Republic since, for better or worse) in their fresh faced days. Last seen in The Dark Knight and US horror serial Harper’s Island respectively, Murphy gets a dress rehearsal for his schtick as the intense and introverted Irish rake here, at his leanest and most wired- full of adolescent energy, while Cassidy does that distant wistful-yet-mischievous thing she does best.

The two main characters Pig/Darin (Murphy) and Runt/Sinead (Cassidy) are aptly described by Grant Johnson on IMDb as the ego and id respectively of the same personality. The film begins with Runt and Pig at almost seventeen,  still attending school, and as  they recount childhood events we are are treated to bright, hazy flashbacks of the pair a decade earlier. The two children are oases of self-absorbed individuality amidst the unselfconscious cacophony of childhood- sat apart, but united in their aloneness, creating a force field around themselves which no one else will enter for the rest of their schooldays.

The film sets out as a low-key classroom drama. The main characters are misfits, but they are not ostracised by their peers, they live outside social parameters of their own volition. Sheridan and her DoP remember what is often forgotten in gritty independent cinema, maybe not so much in Ireland, but certainly in Britain: films are there to be looked at. Proficiency in storytelling is all well and good, but those words need to be illustrated.

Leaving the set design and framing aside for a moment, even the film stock has something to say.  In their reminiscences and narratives Runt is in softer focus, as seen through Darin’s eyes, looking as though shot on video, while he himself is in sharp relief, on shiny new 35mm. The whole film is crisp and bright, the colours leaping out of that shiny new LCD, and these visuals set it yet further apart from murky or dystopian teen dramas. Disco Pigs pops off the screen with an urgent and at times almost intrusive vibrancy. Or maybe I’m just not used to the LCD flatscreen.

After a David Copperfieldesque encompassing introduction, we join them at the point where their meticulously constructed world of ritual and artifice begins to come apart, fuelled by the rapid onset of adulthood and Pig’s mounting carnal desire. There is a dangerous undercurrent of malice and barely restrained violent intent from the start, but the often barely-present adults orbiting the pair don’t seem to recognise the threat. Sinead, the passive catalyst it seems, the adults can see potential in, they think she is being led astray by Darin. He is the proactive participant in their unarticulated schemes, the aggressor, the one who can interact well enough with other bodies to provoke a reaction, but the social worker who comes to discuss taking Sinead away to reform school can see nothing in him worth trying to save.

Their real world identities are minute and distinct from their fantasy personas. Here on Earth, Darin is a lost cause, Pig, however, is a king. As time unfolds it grows ever more evident why this must be the case.  Disco Pigs is in many ways an elegy to lifelong love; a visual poem, transcribed by the leading players into their book of themselves. The almost continual score, use of asynchronous sound, jagged slow motion, jump cuts and disembodied monologue all build a  fractured  jigsaw of two people slightly misaligned with the world about them. The sudden clamour of the remedial classrooom to which Sinead is sent is jarring in its contrast to the gentle orchestrality preceding.  When Pig and Runt are reunited the whole world falls away and we are drawn into their absorbed silence, All they can  see and hear is each other- the consequences of their actions are lost to them.

Prolix and lyrical together, yet they are often struck virtually dumb in public till chance encounters find them temporary companions. But their artistic sensibilities are offset by their recollection, whether true or not, of macabre and cruel revenge on Runt’s abusive alcoholic  father.  Without Pig as a spokesman Runt expresses (literally) her distaste for authority and discipline by means of unsavoury bodily fluids, sometimes as as a petty personal victory and sometimes as performance, for those who are positioned with her simply by strength of being opposed to her enemies.


The stand out scene of the film, the one that has stayed with me all this time and was still just as potent after years of watching violence and depravity in the name of education, is Pig and Runt’s 17th birthday celebrations:  The Karaoke.

The scene: a community club type old man pub filled with pensioners and the Irish equivalent of chavs [rough, council estate troublemakers-S]. Quite why Pig’s tuneful rendition of The Kinks’ timeless classic would provoke such rage was lost on me, but it infuriates one punter so much that she batters and then bottles the ethereal Runt. Although we have just witnessed the pair inflict this kind of violence on another innocent it is still a distressing moment. One might recall that minutes earlier, as Pig wrought bloody wrath on a classmate of theirs working in a local off-licence, it was only Runt calling him off, standing him down, that stopped him short of killing the poor boy.

This is the turning point.

Runt beseeches Pig to leave the nasty scene. No more fights. A school friend of theirs, Marky- a barman, extends the hand of kindness, of care, but she knows Pig would never release her to another man’s care. “No rest,” she says. But the tone changes dramatically as they move on from these  real and unpredictable people and back into their childish fantasy, in which only they exist, surrounded by blank space. Pig  has found their long-promised palace here on Earth and this is where he  takes Runt now, bloodied with her dress in  tatters. But although this is what they have been seeking, Sinead is changing the rules and they are both ill at ease; out of synch with each other after all. Sinead does not have Pig’s compulsive need to adhere to all their fabricated and arbitrary rules. She wants to dance with other boys, “just for a try” she says to him, but this is beyond Darin’s pathology.

In the only image I felt to be clichéd or heavy handed Pig excuses himself to the gents where he stares down his reflection before punching the mirror into shards. Point made.

As Pig reverts yet again to his wanton violence, Runt’s assumed say so giving him carte blanche to take poor Marky to pieces, a melancholy soft rock ballad muffles the horror, though you can see it etched on the faces of the inactive onlookers. This is the clearest confirmation that he will stamp out any spark of life that might flare up around Sinead.


They leave the club, now immersed in their world, without consequence or comeuppance, as ever unimpeded by the law, and reach the beach that has been shown to us throughout as Runt’s imagination. Her calm place. Free of outside intervention. The inevitable outcome ensues. We’ve always known it was coming, but it’s still terrible in the way that all epic stories are, in the way that all endings are. Pig surrenders to his fate; he knows it is as inescapable as it is fitting.

“That silence again,” observes Sinead. “Runt alone” takes over the narrative; not free of the fantasy, not independent of Pig’s influence, but with enough agency to participate in society, should she so desire. It’s closure with an open ending. Ambiguous finality. A story from a Country and Western song in that west coast brogue, a Homerian poem of great love, great loss, sacrifice. Why must it end this way? It is a paean to the crisis of masculinity. The only place a brutal poet named Pig might be happy is the time before urbanisation and culture, when he could fight the other men and paint on cave walls and club his woman into submission. How can such a soul survive in our genteel times? A girl may be forgiven being strange, even dangerous, so long as she is beautiful. A disengaged, volatile boy has no such grace. His difference cannot be forgiven, his transgressions may not go unpunished.

This is not to say that Pig isn’t beautiful, clearly he is, but male beauty is a double-edged sword. His looks only engender greater mistrust, they give him an air of otherness and his male rage and physical might undermine his aesthetic appeal. Sinead’s beauty saves her more than anything else, the adult world does not want to give up on such a pretty face because a girl who looks like that can’t be all bad.


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