The Bye Bye Man
The Bye Bye Man is the kind of film that is so boring and bereft of anything of possible interest that it becomes infuriating.
Set among the Irish working people of Liverpool in the 1930s, Stephen Frears' "Liam" shows us a family where the children are terrified of sin and their parents of poverty. The first is more easily combatted than the second; in two crucial personal transformations, the 7-year-old boy makes his first confession and communion, and his father joins the fascist brownshirts of Oswald Mosley. Both are obsessed with blame; the father blames the Jews for his unemployment and poverty, and his son blames--himself.
This is, says Charles Taylor of Salon, the movie that "Angela's Ashes" might have been, and he is correct: It is harder-edged, more unsparing, and when the father tells his wife, "we're skint," he is not making an announcement but accepting a doom. Broke and unemployed, he is expected to outfit little Liam (Anthony Burrows) in a nice new suit from the tailor shop for his first communion. The way he sees it, to pay the Jewish tailor, he has to get funds from the Jewish pawnbroker, and when, on First Communion Sunday, the priest in his pulpit compliments the children on how well they are dressed, Dad (Ian Hart) stands up furious in his pew to cry out in the church: "Do you know how much it costs to dress the children, Father?" He then goes on to blame the Jews, although he might better blame the church itself, for not welcoming the children of the poor in whatever clothes they have.
Times change. I was reminded of Ken Loach's "Raining Stones" (1994), in which it is the unemployed father who is determined his girl have a nice communion dress, and the priest who tries to talk him out of it. That priest even goes on to make a tricky moral judgment, which seems to owe more to situational ethics than to church doctrine; he is that rarity in the movies, a clergyman who is good, flexible and sympathetic. The priest in "Liam" seems straight from the pages of James Joyce, terrifying the children with visions of hell and informing them that their sins drive the nails deeper into the hands of Christ, which may be more than you can handle when you are 7 years old.
The film is built on strong performances, but two stand out. Little Anthony Burrows, short, stout and always in earnest as Liam, has a stutter which makes it almost impossible for him to get the words out. Sometimes this works to his advantage; He takes a suit to the pawnshop instructed to get "seven and a tenner" but seizes up and gets nine and a tenner when another customer appeals to the good heart of the pawnbroker. During Liam's first confession he literally cannot say a word until he hits upon a sudden inspiration that releases the flow.