Five Minutes of Heaven is no sent-from-above masterpiece. It's not even the best film about the Irish Troubles to come out on home video this year. That distinction goes to the Criterion Collection release Hunger, which chronicles the 1981 prison hunger strike led by Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender). It's an arresting film, if somewhat overblown, as Sands wastes away to an uncomfortably generous helping of flashy music-video aesthetics. (Another relatively recent IRA-focused DVD release, Fifty Dead Men Walking, a more conventional spy thriller, also has some admirers.)
But Five Minutes of Heaven, starring Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt and directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall, The Invasion—weird career), didn't meet with anything like the critical approbation that Hunger did, so it probably could use a little championing. The revenge-and-remorse two-hander won a couple prizes at 2009's Sundance Film Festival—for its direction and its screenplay, by Guy Hibbert—but it was a nonstarter with audiences when IFC Films put it in theaters last summer.
After its obligatory stint as a Blockbuster Exclusive (it's increasingly difficult to keep track of the films released by IFC, with its staggered video releases and brief on-demand windows of availability), Five Minutes of Heaven debuted on DVD proper this week, and it certainly deserves a look. Sure, the title is awful—sounds like some kind of vaguely exploitative combination of seven minutes in heaven and 15 minutes of fame—and its three-part structure feels oddly jagged. But the opening act is a stunner, and the whole thing doesn't lack for tension. Hunger's inquiry into the body as a political tool might be more thought-provoking, but for repeat-viewing purposes I'd opt for the considerably less punishing Five Minutes every time.
Neither of the film's leads appear in its fact-based opening, which takes place in a Northern Ireland town of Lurgan in the middle of the 1970s. This section chronicles the actions and motivations leading up to the death of Jim Griffin, a Catholic gunned down by a Protestant Ulster Volunteer Force cell. Griffin is the older brother of Nesbitt's character, Joe, who as a child sees Neeson's committed-to-the-loyalist-cause character, Alistair Little, kill his brother. The rest of the film observes the long fallout of this shooting—the crippling guilt borne by Alistair, who lives alone in an empty Belfast apartment, and the nervous anger churning within Joe, who has a wife and two daughters but little compunction in wanting Alistair dead.
In their virtuoso opening Hirschbiegel and Hibbert start by gathering the smallest details of daily life—before he tucks the gun under his jacket, Joe spots a pimple in the bathroom mirror, puts on a record, and tiptoes to the edge of the stairs to make sure his parents are otherwise occupied (dishes clatter; they are)—into a kind of terribly inevitable clockwork. (Ticking clocks also figure throughout the film, which wouldn't seem so prosaic a device if the movie just had another title.)
This is all, as they say, based on a true story, something duly established by the film's opening intertitles. But Hibbert's screenplay uses this as a springboard into something altogether more speculative—the scenarist interviewed the real Alistair Little and Joe Griffin in attempting to imagine a meeting between them—and the rest of the film does feel fairly tentative. Five Minutes' second section, its weakest, takes place as Joe and Alistair are set to reunite at an Irish estate as part of a (fictional) television program on reconciliation called One on One. It's the most conscientious, touchiest-feeliest reality program imaginable. "Five minutes of heaven," Joe confides behind the scenes to one of the show's runners, is what he thinks he stands to gain by killing Alistair—no small thing, of course. Joe bolts the set of the show before the ostensibly therapeutic sit-down can take place, but he and Alistair come into contact again in the more convincing third act, when they collide in a much less stage-crafted fashion.
Neeson gives a quiet, brooding performance, while Nesbitt goes hammier in portraying his motor-mouth bundle of nerves, a man whose manic, deranged charm constantly broadcasts his lifelong anguish. Their performances complement each other nicely, though. The film around them is none too profound, just a well-acted, mostly well-observed drama about the senselessness of even the most principled acts of violence over the long term. It's an odd, visceral, furious thing that will reward your 89 minutes.