By Michael Gray
2 BY 4. Directed by Jimmy Smallhorne. Photography by Declan Quinn. Starring Jimmy Smallhorne, Chris O’Neill, Kimberly Topper and Bradley Fitts. Red Horse Films.
Chronicles of the Irish diaspora, in books and on film, often feature
homesick young lads yearning for Barry’s tea, Galtee rashers, and a decent pint of stout. The illegal immigrant protagonists in Jimmy Smallhorne’s feature film debut, "2 BY 4," are driven by much darker cravings on the streets of the Bronx as they scramble to make a living in construction. Lead character Johnnie, played with real verve by director Smallhorne himself, a foul-mouthed Dubliner, is a foreman carpenter by day, working for his decidedly dodgy uncle’s sheetrocking company, Trump Consolidated. By night he explores the seedy side of Bronx nightlife, performing glamrock
karaoke at his uncle’s bar wearing eyeliner and feather boa, and fueled on cocaine and beer. He confides to his girlfriend, Maria (Kimberly Topper), that he has had experiences with men in the past, and she is unperturbed by the news as long as she doesn’t have to share him.
Johnnie is tormented by nightmares about barely remembered incidents from his youth in Ireland. His uncle, a devious, swindling slieveen nicknamed Trump (played by the late Chris O’Neill, in his final screen performance) probes Johnnie continuously about his memories of early childhood and seems relieved to find that Johnny has blanked the entire period. Unbeknownst to Johnnie, Trump has a dark side of his own, which comes out when he gets arrested and charged with indecent exposure.
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Johnnie’s forays into sleaze bring him in contact with a gay street hustler named Christian (Bradley Fitts), and he learns to his horror that his uncle shares his nocturnal proclivities. Johnnie visits crack dens and omnisexual nightclubs in a self-destructive and joyless surrender to decadence that opens up the repressed memories that assail him in the dead of night, and he begins to recall to his horror the source of his dark desires.
"2 BY 4" is stylishly presented, thanks to the cinematographic talents of Declan Quinn (director of photography on his brother Paul’s impressive debut "This Is My Father" last year), and his impressive visuals transcend the film’s tight budget constraints. Quinn and Smallhorne deliver a convincing portrayal of the hard, competitive world of cowboy construction, and the narcotic nightlife to which his characters are drawn. The strengths of the screenplay, written by the director, Terence McGoff, and Fergus Tighe (director of "Clash of the Ash," which may explain the inclusion of the all-but gratuitous shots of the lads’ hurling team, with Trump as their unlikely trainer), lie in the realist depiction of the immigrant’s rough working environment.
Smallhorne shows that the decency and civility on which Irish people pride themselves are often just a thin veneer, quickly and easily eroded in the dog-eat-dog world of New York building sites, to expose the malice, cruelty and casual racism underneath. Smallhorne shows a lot of daring in his blunt depiction of gay encounters between his leads and their hustler friends, and turns in a charismatic lead performance himself; but his film ultimately falters in its heavy-handed and predictable conclusion, and the lack of resolution in the story, as the film ends up where it started.
"2 BY 4" opens on Nov. 26 at select theaters.