The narrative plot of The Crying Game (1992) plays out in the context of Irish IRA terrorists fighting against the British in the 1970s. An IRA terrorist, Fergus (played by Stephen Rea), is assigned the duty of guarding a captured British soldier, Jody (played by Forest Whitaker). Fergus knows that he might soon be (and in fact soon IS) faced with the dilemma about what to do if given the order to execute his shackled, hooded prisoner. Meanwhile, Jody is not one to be lead silently and anonymously to slaughter. He forces his captor into a personal relationship. (Note: I was REALLY impressed by the way Forest Whitaker nailed this very difficult role. I had not remembered this from when I first saw the film in a theater when it came out in 1992, probably because the shock of what happened later in the film overwhelmed my memory of the earlier scenes. On re-watching the film on DVD for purposes of our film discussion this month, I was struck by Whitaker’s performance in this role. The same kind of dominating force of personality that he brought to life using bravado and menace when playing The Last King of Scotland last year, he achieved in a more nuanced and subtle manner in The Crying Game).
During captivity Jody tells Fergus a fable about a frog and a scorpion, the moral of which is that, ultimately, it is impossible to resist acting in accordance with one’s own “true nature”. This sets up a major thematic element in the film; What is Fergus’ true nature? At a surface level of interpretation, the answer is pretty straightforward. Fergus is at heart a kind man even though he is a terrorist. This is revealed early on in the scene where Jody persuades Fergus to remove the hood from his head. Jody knows Fergus will do this “because you are kind and its in your nature”. Jody also picked up on another component of Fergus’ true nature, which was that he was someone who could be trusted. This is evidenced by the fact that Jody shows Fergus a picture of his “wife” back in London, and tells Fergus her name and address so that she can be “looked after” if Jody dies.
These elements of Fergus’ true nature are sufficient to explain what happens as the remainder of the film plays itself out (with a few rather dramatic plot twists). However, being a psychologist, I cannot resist trying to plumb a little deeper into the psychological depths of the film. (It is part of my nature). Here goes! Read on only if you are not overly threatened by the idea that Fergus’ “true nature” might include another major component, “homo-erotic desire”. (Spoiler Alert: Also do not read on if you do not already know, and do not want to know, the “surprise” plot twist).
The Crying Game provides an intense psychological examination of the nature of homo-erotic desire, and more generally, the nature of all types of erotic desire. The film is similar to the more recent Brokeback Mountain in the sense that it tells a story about a man who happens to fall in love/lust with another man, but who is not homosexual in the sense of feeling sexual attraction, in general, towards other males.
The first third of the film or so, while Jody is still alive, establishes the intimate, homo-erotic (although not sexual) relationship that developed between captor (Fergus) and captured (Jody). Fergus is smitten by Jody, as by a lover, becoming obsessed (similar to the French Lieutenant in The French Lieutenant’s Woman) by a potentially dangerous object of erotic desire. This thematic element is underscored in the remainder of the film via numerous flashbacks Fergus has about Jody (always occurring in the context of sexual arousal).
The remaining two-thirds of the film, after the death of Jody, uses another relationship to explore the nature of homo-erotic desire in more detail. Fergus travels to London, searches out, meets, and begins to fall in love/lust with Jody’s wife, Dil. Being a heterosexual male, Fergus feels a sexual attraction towards Dil evoked by her observable feminine characteristics: her face, her hair, her figure, her voice and mannerisms, etc. Soon, the two of them are in Dil’s apartment where she performs oral sex on Fergus and his sexual desire towards her reaches a peak. Note that up until this point, Fergus’ sexual desire had nothing to do with the particular details of Dil’s genital anatomy since she had never revealed her genitals to him. (Note also that the fantasy image playing out in Fergus’ mind while receiving oral sex from Dil was not of Dil, but of Jody, dressed in his cricket uniform. We will come back to this point shortly). The second time they begin to engage in sexual activity Dil reveals her genital anatomy, a penis. Three very interesting things follow. First, Fergus vomits. Second, he again plays out a flashback fantasy image of Jody in his cricket uniform. Third, in the coming days and weeks he continues to see Dil, and continues (at least limited) forms of sexual engagement with her. I will elaborate these three aspects of the film in the following paragraphs.
I recently included a discussion of Freudian defense mechanisms in the context of the film Off the Map. The primary defense mechanisms related to the plot of that film were forms of displacement. The Freudian interpretation of this vomiting scene from the Crying Game depends on reaction formation, another defense mechanism. A reaction formation refers to a psychological process by which anxiety caused by an unconscious feeling is reduced by turning the unconscious feeling into its opposite in consciousness. For example, a man who unconsciously feels sexual arousal when around other men might cope with this by turning his unconscious arousal into a conscious feeling of disgust towards homosexuality or homo-erotic images. A defining characteristic of a reaction formation is that the (opposite) conscious feeling is expressed in an excessive manner, as in this vomiting scene.
What has changed about Dil between when she evoked the feeling of peak sexual arousal in Fergus in their first sexual encounter, and this feeling of disgust in the second sexual encounter? She still has the same face, hair, figure, voice and mannerisms, etc. “All” that has changed is that Fergus is now made aware of the fact that “she” (Dil) has a penis instead of a vagina. But Fergus did not “fall in love/lust with” or “develop desire towards” an anatomical structure; His desire was directed towards a person, Dil! So WHAT IS THE NATURE OF DESIRE, for the character Fergus in this film in particular, and for all of us as human beings watching this film in general? Good question! One that is not raised very often, and one deserving of further thought and discussion. I will not address the larger issue of the “true nature of desire” in general here. If you want to pursue that thematic question further, go watch the film and then think about its implications. What I will do here now is continue along with a discussion of the “true nature” of the character Fergus.
Fergus is not homosexual. He is sexually attracted to female rather than male characteristics. However, Fergus has developed (unconscious) erotic feelings for one particular man; the (now dead) Jody, who did in fact have a penis (as Fergus well knows having handled it in a nonsexual manner in an early scene in the film). Fergus has also developed sexual desire towards an individual person, Dil sans penis. His (most likely unconscious) solution is to try to combine these two psychological desires into one. He cuts off Dil’s hair and dresses her in Jody’s cricket clothes. Then he makes love to her again with her blouse removed but her pants left on. He fantasizes about Jody dressed in his cricket clothes while doing so. This solution works for a short period (Fergus is shown smoking in bed the following morning next to a sleeping Dil), but it does not last very long. The plot has other tensions and loose ends that must be tied up, and it moves on to do so. I will not discuss those further here. Instead, I will stop here because I think I have by now made my main point, that the “True Nature” of Fergus, as revealed in this complex film, involved more than him simply being a nice, dependable person.
I gave this (relatively low budget) movie a rating of 3 out of 5.
If you want to see how this same writer/director (Neil Jordan) explores related themes when he has a bigger budget to work with, I recommend Breakfast on Pluto.