Review: Liam Neeson Returns to Ireland for a Fantastical Thriller in ‘In the Land of Saints and Sinners’

Teaming up with another veteran action star, Robert Lorenz, Clint Eastwood’s longtime producing partner, delivers a compelling pseudo-Western situated amidst the Troubles.

in the land of saints and sinners

It’s been just half a year since Liam Neeson’s last film hit theaters, signaling a timely return for another thriller led by the prolific actor. His latest project, “In the Land of Saints and Sinners,” directed by Robert Lorenz, made its debut at the Venice Film Festival a month prior to the release of Neeson’s previous film, the poorly received “Retribution.” The film’s selection for such a prestigious festival adds a sense of distinction to “Saints and Sinners,” a distinction it more than lives up to. In fact, the movie feels like a personal venture for Neeson, with its sweeping Irish landscapes and restrained performances providing ample opportunity for the ensemble cast, including Neeson himself, to deliver poignant moments.

The narrative kicks off with a gripping action sequence: an IRA bombing in Belfast tragically results in the deaths of several young children, setting a somber tone for the ensuing events. Led by the determined and fiery Doireann McCann (portrayed by Kerry Condon), the group flees to the hills to evade capture. This decision sets them on a collision course with Finbar Murphy (played by Neeson), a local widower who, despite his past as a hitman, now seeks redemption and a fresh start away from violence.

In essence, “Saints and Sinners” unfolds as a Western tale, exploring themes of how civilized societies grapple with threats and protection through acts of violence. The film not only delves into these thematic elements but also embraces the aesthetics of the Western genre on-screen. Shot on location across Donegal county, the movie revels in the region’s natural beauty, capturing the rugged cliffsides and lush green hillsides, often employing serene drone shots. Additionally, the ensemble cast portraying Finbar’s neighbors, comprised of familiar faces and warm-hearted individuals, adds to the sense of community and intimacy reminiscent of a close-knit, remote town.

This sense of warmth within the community also functions as a form of resilience. While the community remains cautious about the country’s civil conflict, they have also become somewhat desensitized by years of sporadic and bloody attacks. “Saints and Sinners” doesn’t take a clear moral stance on the Troubles, but its exploration goes beyond surface-level representation. Instead, the political backdrop serves to deepen the film’s tragedy and blur the moral lines of its characters. Many of them feel compelled by a sense of moral duty to engage in acts of violence, further complicating the narrative and adding layers of complexity to their motivations.

The film marks a reunion for director Lorenz and Neeson, who previously collaborated on the 2021 U.S.-Mexico border thriller “The Marksman.” Prior to that, Lorenz had a longstanding partnership with Clint Eastwood, serving as a producer and assistant director. Lorenz even directed Eastwood in his 2012 feature debut “Trouble With the Curve.” While Lorenz may not possess Eastwood’s knack for subtlety or effortless style, both filmmakers share a penchant for melancholy, which resonates strongly in “In the Land of Saints and Sinners.” The film centers on the weathered and regretful countenance of 71-year-old Neeson, capturing his character’s inner turmoil with authenticity.

This pursuit of grace extends beyond the film’s leading man, evident even in the smallest comedic relief characters and notably in Kerry Condon’s portrayal of Doireann McCann. Condon, delivering her most compelling performance since her Oscar-nominated role in “The Banshees of Inisherin,” effortlessly commands attention as she curses out nervous IRA confidantes and confronts Neeson’s character head-on. However, the film’s standout moment, and perhaps its most profound scene, occurs not during a violent act but in its aftermath. After fatally shooting a man, Doireann’s immediate concern is to protect the man’s elderly mother, displaying a rare moment of empathy as she calmly and apologetically explains the situation. “He deserved it,” she declares, although her words serve to shatter the woman’s heart.

It’s these subtle, unconventional moments that inject vitality into “Saints and Sinners.” However, the film occasionally leans too heavily on overt displays of emotion, especially in scenes involving endangered children. The depiction of collateral damage in the opening bombing feels somewhat tasteless, while the portrayal of abuse suffered by a young girl at the hands of McCann’s brother lacks nuance. This incites Murphy’s vigilante-style retribution, igniting the fuse that ultimately leads to a climactic shootout between him and the IRA soldiers. In moments where the story needs to progress, Lorenz’s direction occasionally reveals shortcomings.

Despite its pleasant diversions, “Saints and Sinners” doesn’t shy away from acknowledging its inevitable descent into violence. The film’s central tension lies in its treatment of Neeson’s on-screen persona — portraying a gentle elder entrenched in a tranquil town, yet indelibly marked as an actor renowned for dispatching criminal henchmen over nearly two decades. When Finbar contemplates retiring from his violent past, his suggestion of planting a garden is met with laughter, inviting the audience to share in the irony of the moment.

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