In 1975 Belfast, seventeen year old Protestant Alistair Little shot and killed nineteen year old Catholic Jim Griffin as retaliation for a threat made toward his gang. It was his first and only murder, and one he asked to commit. Griffin’s young brother Joe witnessed the shooting, his mother blamed him for not stopping it, and his family slowly disintegrated, while Little served thirteen years for the crime. That is the fact-based set-up for Five Minutes of Heaven, director Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall) and screenwriter Guy Hibbert’s (Omagh) tale of the lifelong aftermath of a killing: the senseless destruction, collateral damage, the desire for vengeance, and the need for, if not forgiveness, then some measure of peace.
The film is structured like a play with three distinct acts. The first covers the afternoon and evening of Jim Griffin’s murder, cutting between Little and his gang and the Griffin family. Tension is built steadily, and though you know it’s coming, the actual murder remains shocking. More shocking is the attack on young Joe by his mother in a grief-induced fit of rage. In the second act, we see the adult Joe (Murphy’s Law’s James Nesbitt) and Alistair (Liam Neeson) as they are driven, in separate cars, to a mansion where they are to meet on camera for a television special, “Truth and Reconciliation.” Both men talk to their drivers about the day ahead in starkly different, if no less haunting, ways and we also hear Griffin’s internal thoughts and emotions, which mainly encompass rage and fear. We watch a slick and clueless production crew flit about, preparing for the shoot while Alistair worries for Joe’s safety and Joe ponders the knife he has brought with him. Only Vika, a production assistant assigned to babysit Joe seems to understand the potential pitfalls of this forced meeting and she tells Joe that killing Alistair would not be good for him. He disagrees, saying it would be his “five minutes of heaven.” The shoot goes south before Alistair and Joe are in the same room, leaving both men cheated of any resolution. In the final act, Alistair contacts Joe for a private meeting, which Joe’s wife unsuccessfully tries to prevent. The meeting is short and violent and seems to have again resolved nothing, even as Alistair tells Joe he has to get rid of him, cut him out. In the end, there is no forgiveness and no truth, but there seems to be some measure of reconciliation with the past and, we are given to hope, peace.
Five Minutes of Heaven works on many levels: as a character study, as a satire of the shallow world of reality television with its buzz words and fetish for forgiveness and closure, as an examination of a violent act and how easy it can be to convince yourself it is right and just without consideration for what comes after, and, finally, as a thoughtful look at retribution and letting go. The film never blinks at the ideas that Joe has every right to want to kill Alistair or that Alistair simply shouldn’t be forgiven. Where so many films live in the black and white world of either forgiveness or revenge, Five Minutes of Heaven exists in the gray world in between and thus resonates more. We are left with hope for these characters, but without a falsely sweet resolution.
Neeson and Nesbitt knock this one out of the park. As Alistair, Neeson is all repressed guilt and suffering, while Nesbitt represses little in his nerves strung tight portrayal of Joe. Though they spend little time onscreen together, their performances mesh perfectly throughout the film. Anamaria Marinca is an oasis of sincerity in the fake world of television production in her role as Vika. She, like the audience, understands and empathizes with both men. As young Alistair, Marc Davison perfectly walks the fine line between cocky but scared teenager and cold-blooded killer. Excellent casting all around.
The only extra, besides a theatrical trailer, is a five minute behind the scenes featurette that says little and works mainly as an IFC Films commercial. The audio and video are excellent. Everything is crisp and clear, with sparse but effective music and meticulous cinematography.
The thoughtful and thought-provoking Five Minutes of Heaven is more than worth your time. With outstanding performances and a smart, nuanced screenplay, it takes dark material and shades it in gray, letting in a touch of hope and light without compromising away truth.