Up, Up, and Away

'Pluto' elevates Neil Jordan's buoyant sensibility to a new level

Throughout his free-ranging and intriguingly erratic career, Neil Jordan has pitched many an emotional and psychological conflict within threshold spaces: between girlhood and adulthood in the menstrual fairy-tale compendium The Company of Wolves (1984), between genders in the sinuous romantic thriller The Crying Game (1992), between life and afterlife in the enjoyably lurid Interview with the Vampire (1994). Jordan's second adaptation of a Patrick McCabe novel (the first was 1998's The Butcher Boy), Breakfast on Pluto bears a passing resemblance to The Crying Game in its intersection of gender-blending and the Troubles; more characteristic of the director's hefty oeuvre is its mix of brutality and whimsy.

Secret offspring of a priest (Liam Neeson) and a "Phantom Lady" who left her baby on the proverbial doorstep, Patrick Brady (Cillian Murphy) fulfills family-romance beginnings with androgynous self-invention and the pursuit of Candide-like adventures, broken up with chapter headings and sometimes commented upon by a wearying Greek chorus of animated birds. Self-baptized as "Kitten," the loveliest epicene in Ireland falls for Billy Hatchet (Gavin Friday), an unsavory rockabilly frontman with links to the IRA, and acts as humiliated foil to an arcade-strip magician played by Stephen Rea (whose very presence is a wink-and-nod to his gender-bent pas de deux with Jaye Davidson 13 years ago). Even the good men who cross Kitten's path can hurt, like the cop (Ian Hart) who delivers a beating to extract an unforthcoming confession to a pub bombing, and then, conscience pricked, guides Kitten toward a reputable brothel and away from the psycho johns on the street (e.g., Bryan Ferry in a saturnine cameo).

Catholic imagery is an essential fabric in Jordan's oeuvre, and martyr figures take up many panels in the tapestry; Kitten suffers meaninglessly, perhaps perpetually, but, to Jordan's credit, the film doesn't pity its protagonist or even regard Kitten's circumstances as particularly outrageous. In London, the abandoned child searches tirelessly for the Phantom Lady, cast as Mitzi Gaynor in the ongoing biopic inside her kid's head; the mommy-sized hole in Kitten's heart, combined with doll-like features and breathy, pull-my-string singsong, evokes a dragtastic variation on mecha-boy David from A.I.

Star me Kitten: Cillian Murphy in 'Breakfast on Pluto'
Sony Pictures Classics
Star me Kitten: Cillian Murphy in 'Breakfast on Pluto'

As the villains of Batman Begins and Red Eye, Murphy excelled at icy duplicity; here, the actor's force field of eerie chill lends Kitten a metallic sheen of impenetrable flakiness that works as a convincing first line of defense against a cruel world. Maybe Breakfast on Pluto necessarily operates on a surface level, given Kitten's performative survival tactics and the haste and hustle of the episodic narrative. The Pavlovian string of '60s and '70s pop chestnuts does irritate, though here at least an umpteenth undermotivated spin of "For What It's Worth" accompanies a stiff but endearing fantasy sequence: Kitten resplendent in a form-fitting Irma Vep ensemble, flooring a terrorist cell with a few expertly squeezed puffs of Chanel No. 5. The scene is emblematic of Jordan's studiously quirky movie, and of the filmmaker's sensibilities as a whole: Amid everyday menace and drudgery, a stubbornly innocent flight of fancy somehow stays aloft.

Also in this issue: Breakfast with Neil Jordan by David Schimke

 
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