There may not be any other more masculine cultural mainstay than that of “The Stag night”. The epitome of male bonding in our society, it is one of the most gender warped rituals you can find, matched only by the accompanying “Hen night”. Such a uniquely male tradition has been the subject of many films, a lot of them of dubious quality, content to go for the profane or the sexualised for the quick and easy laugh. The Hangover “franchise”, the cornerstone of the new wave of film comedy, has set that trend, with an increasingly bland and frankly lazy approach to the idea. But they are successful, and success breeds replication. Now the Irish film industry has decided to give this kind of tale a go, but could their effort really be anything more than an “Irish Hangover”? Going by the promotional material, you really couldn’t be sure, though the likes of Andrew Scott were desperate in pre-release interviews to dissuade audiences from thinking such things. I caught an advanced screening of The Stag at the conclusion of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival in February.
Fionnan (Hugh O’Conor) is getting married, but his fiancée Ruth (Amy Huberman) is concerned that he is becoming too obsessed with plans for the big day. She convinces the best man (and old flame) Davin (Andrew Scott) to take him out for a stag weekend, in the form of a walking tour of the Dublin/Wicklow Mountains. Along for the ride are gay couple “Big” Kevin (Andrew Bennett) and “Little” Kevin (Michael Legge), financially hard pressed Simon (Brian Gleeson) and “the Machine” (Peter McDonald), Fionnan’s infamously manic and unhinged future brother-in-law, who soon has all of Davin’s best laid plans in ruins. In the isolated woods of rural Ireland, the group goes through examinations of masculinity in modern society, slips into barbarism and tests of their friendship.
More in-depth discussion of the film, with spoilers, from this point forward. For my shorter, non-spoiler, review, click here to go to The Write Club.
Despite what the trailers might be suggesting, with their focus on the wacky and physical comedy, The Stag is most definitely not just some run of the mill Hangover clone, that was shot on the cheap and released as fast as possible (though I imagine the budget was small enough). No, this is a film with both a heart and a brain, an exploration of male interplay wrapped around a drama about friendships and romance, both of the fulfilled and failed kinds.
I talked about how difficult it is mixing humour and seriousness effectively when I reviewed Brendan Gleeson’s The Grand Seduction last week, and The Stag is making the same kind of attempt. The Grand Seduction was OK, let down by the sort of extreme and fantastical aspects of its humour. The Stag succeeds more in my opinion. The drama portions of the plot are grounded and believable, based on the sort of stuff that so many men can relate to directly – Wedding plan stress, pining after old flames, financial issues, bigotry, marriage crises – and that’s all good. But with the exception of “the Machine” character, who I’ll get to in a little bit, the humour portions of The Stag are far more grounded as well, mostly simple reactionary stuff, more in common with The Guard in their innate sense of Irishness. “Wit” I suppose is what I mean, and the comedy is inherent in seeing how five relatively normal men deal with a sixth unstable one, in such a unique circumstance, but all without going too far into a realm where suspension of disbelief becomes difficult. The humour here is an accompaniment to a decent story and several decent sub-stories, which lifts them up and keeps The Stag from being a very maudlin experience. The mix isn’t entirely perfect, but is good enough to be more than passable. The drama isn’t denigrated by the humour, and the jokes don’t lose anything amid the drama.
While the film does have a small bit of trouble having a main story to follow around, it seems clear that the real narrative of The Stag is driven by a lasting, and not so secret, infatuation Davin has with Fionnan’s intended, the two having once had a brief relationship several years before. Such a set-up is done remarkably simply – just a few forlorn glances really – and the evolution of this plot thread, though it is perhaps a little standard, keeps the barely hidden conflict between the two main characters ticking over nicely, and has a suitably brilliant pay off late on in the film.
Davin and Fionnan seemed for the first act to be very strange best friends, though you can see a greater kinship between them as The Stag progresses, but it’s all wrapped up in this unrequited love Davin has for Ruth, that leads to this brilliantly portrayed subconscious little spat between the two, as Davin repeatedly runs down Fionnan as playing second fiddle to him until an inevitable explosion. The truth comes out, the really big emotional pay-off for the Davin character, but it would have meant nothing if director John Butler hadn’t taken the time to build to it slowly and with a such a great degree of subtlety. The main plot also allows for Davin and “the Machine” to have some very heart-warming moments alongside the stuff with Fionnan, and it’s probably The Stag’s best aspect. The scene where, alone, cold and completely forlorn, the group witness the revelation coming into the light is wonderful on many different levels, a catharsis for the audience that comes from so much build-up. I suppose it does lead to a fault in how it all ends, but I’ll get to that in just a moment.
On the side of that main plot, every main character gets a recognisable and coherent sub-plot, and with only one exception they all get developed as much as they can and end with a dose of finality. “Big” Kevin isn’t invited to the wedding because the father of his “Little” partner is against their relationship, something that allows for a brief discussion on how homosexuality is viewed in Ireland, and how there is still a divide on such a topic between young and old generations. Such a sub-plot again allows for “the Machine” to get involved in things more substantially and provides another tension-filled level to the wedding.
Meanwhile, Simon has huge debt problems, shown subtly enough in early stages as he struggles through a ream of credit cards at the hiking shop. Lots of people in Ireland will relate to this kind of thing of course, but this was the one sub-plot that did sort of lack a bit of finality: there is a discussion on Simon’s finances, again involving “the Machine”, but it gets little pay-off really, other than Simon smiling at the wedding. I suppose you can’t wrap everything up, and maybe the point was just that Simon got over his crippling fears of such a thing.
And then there is “the Machine” himself. The Stag revolves so heavily around “the Machine” that it comes as no surprise that the man playing him was one of the co-writers and producers. It’s an interesting character: a sort of D4 experience-obsessed lunatic, who hands out frank jibes and insults even while demonstrating his inner heart of gold on repeated occasions. So much is the focus on “the Machine” that The Stag briefly loses the run of its plot for much of the second act, turning into “the Machine” Movie, with every action, scene and second line of dialogue revolving around him in some manner, with only Davin and Fionnan’s hidden conflict butting in.
This is just about OK because the character is entertaining in his ridiculousness, intriguing enough in his inner turmoil – marriage troubles, providing a suitable comparison with Fionnan – and provides a cipher for the other characters to air and work out their own issues. “The Machine” is the one who talks sense about the possibility of “Big” Kevin not going to the wedding, “the Machine” is the one who gets Simon to come out of his shell and its “the Machine” who gives some comforting words to a morose Davin. That’s all fine, and I suppose the character works as that sort of extreme element that shakes up a group of friends that are a bit too comfortable in their respective problems and misery. But there are certainly times when you wonder whether McDonald would pipe down just a little bit and let other plots play-out to a larger scale. The way he dominates the film from the moment he arrives to the scene around the campfire is just a little off-putting, and the thing that comes closest to ruining the delicate balance of drama and comedy.
But his own sub-plot does help to deflect that just a little, his simple inability to overcome his own nature and apologise to his wife for one of his crazy actions in the past. There’s an element in all of it that makes “the Machine” seem almost like a character within a character, an extreme persona that he puts on to mask some other turmoil or just to bizarrely fit in with others, as he comes to with this group. In the end, he goes back to his wife and loses much of the gusto in his approach to her, before appearing more calm and benign at the wedding.
Beyond that though, there is a certain sense of The Stag’s plot going through the motions towards its conclusion. The ending of the group’s mental travels in the mountains of Ireland isn’t very ambitious, as are epilogue sequences set after. Nearly everything gets tied up rather neatly – too neatly really. “Big” Kevin is reconciled to “Little” Kevin’s previously bigoted father, Simon’s financial troubles are forgotten, Davin and Fionnan are reconciled without much fuss and “the Machine” is back with his wife. It’s all just a bit too happy – the wedding goes off without a hitch and “the Machine” see’s us off with a rendition of U2’s “One” (A great performance of it, but a thoroughly unsuitable song for a wedding really). I think that the preceding story was serious enough that there could have been an effort to avoid such tying up loose ends, to make a more believable conclusion. Maybe Fionnan’s father doesn’t have to become friends with “Big” Kevin. Maybe Simon can go bust, maybe Davin can lose out on the best man position. For everything to wind up in a happy place just rings a bit hollow to me, a surrender to the expected happy ending that comedies tend to always have (just like The Hangover actually).
But I don’t want to give too negative an impression there. For all those faults, most of which can be seen as minor enough, there is much entertainment and good story-telling to be found as well, as Butler does a great job of balancing the sub-plots with the main story. The act structure is very coherent and enjoyable with a good contrast found between the opening, set in metropolitan Dublin, and the second act out in the wilderness south of the city. The big set-piece scenes mesh well with the more stand-alone comedy moments, not least the likes of “the Machine” running into an electric fence when compared to the confrontation between Davin and Fionnan that follows on around 20 minutes later. The pacing of such things, from comedy to drama is done very well all the way up to the last five or so minutes.
My usual word on female characters does seem a little superfluous for this film. The Stag is set up right from the start as being about a group of men doing a very male-orientated activity, so there is really little time for a female viewpoint, and for once that isn’t really a flaw. I suppose we might see a sequel about “The Hen” someday (wouldn’t be the worst idea actually) but such a thing, if attempted alongside the already present narrative, would just end up damaging both. The Ruth character is fine for her limited time on screen – basically just the first act and the epilogue at the wedding – but can’t really claim to be anything more than just a stock fiancée, there to prod Fionnan out the door and be an object of affection for Davin.
The cast is a bit of a mixed bag. Hugh O’Conor is a little dry and uninspired as Fionnan, only really coming into his own in some heated moments late on. The actor apparently won a theatre award on the same night that I saw The Stag, arriving late to the screening as a result. Perhaps he’s simply a better stage actor then, because I was surprised to hear this news on the basis of what I had seen in onscreen. Fionnan is just sort of dull as a character in many ways, subordinate to Davin in plot terms and lacking any real stand out moments until near the finale. The explosion of life from him when he confronts Davin is as unexpected as it was brilliant, largely because of the underwhelming way he had appeared on screen up to that point, struggling to emote the proper panic when he hears “the Machine” is coming along on his stag adventure or the right kind of annoyance with Davin’s passive-aggressive ramblings.
Andrew Scott, as you might expect, is much better, bringing a really powerful performance as the maligned and secretly suffering Davin. We all know about his immense acting talent from Sherlock, but he proves he can play a different kind of role here. He’s able to say so much without saying anything at all really, with an early scene opposite Amy Huberman indicative of this. When he first spots here he’s momentarily stunned, by both the sight of her and her presence there in the first place. As they talk his words are quiet, stilted, as if he’s trying to clamp down on any emotion in his voice. As she leaves, he can’t help but gaze after her in the most perfectly forlorn manner possible. Later, his performance is marked by a brilliant rendition of “On Raglan Road” before the confrontation scene with Davin, where Scott leaves nothing on the table when it comes to his acting chops. He blows everyone else out of the water, confirming that he’s one of Ireland’s greatest talents (as if he needed to).
McDonald is clearly having a whale of a time as “the Machine”, revelling in the insanity he gets to portray. His accent was great as was the very evident energy he brought to the role. Since so much of the centre portions of The Stag revolve around him, that energy was going to be badly needed. With probably the most comedic experience of the cast, McDonald’s part in the more humorous side of things is very important, but he’s able to pull just about all of it off. “The Machine” is the real set-piece character I suppose, and I felt that McDonald was excellent for that requirement – the problems with the character and his involvement in events are not his (unless it’s his writing we’re talking about).
In the smaller roles, it is sufficient to say that Legge, Bennett and Gleeson are all effective and commendable as the other members of The Stag party, all getting enough moments to really stand out without ever taking away too much from the more main players I have already mentioned. Beyond them, there’s Amy Huberman as Ruth in early scenes, limited in screentime but effective when she was there, most notably in that earlier noted scene with Davin. She makes the other half of the equation work, managing to portray a woman seeking a reasonable enough favour from Davin while also being just a little bit uncomfortable in his presence.
On the visual side, the film features some gorgeous landscapes once we head outside of the first act urban Dublin setting, and start trekking around the mountain ranges. These are the rapidly uncovered areas of Ireland that once gave the entire island its mystical aura, and while the modernisation of the country might be robbing them of some of that (case in point, the group destroying an ancient burial mound to retrieve some lost car keys), it still allows for a great deal of beautiful countryside to be shown off, that doesn’t normally get the chance in this medium. A late shot contrasts this rural expanse with the distant, but overwhelming lights of Dublin City, as visual a representation of the Irish cultural divide as you will find in The Stag.
Beyond that, the film is shot with competence if not a great uniqueness. There are some great individual moments for camerawork, like the fireside conversation towards the end of the second act or just how the camera is able to capture the invading sense of darkness and gloom when the group becomes lost just after, but these are set-piece sequences in their own right and so meriting such camera attention over other moments. Butler uses a wide mixture of shots and perspectives, and while it is nothing to complain about, I never found the experience to be too noteworthy. I know I say that about a lot of films, but it’s simply the truth.
Script wise, The Stag succeeds far, far more often than it fails. The serious discussions between Davin and Fionnan are handled wonderfully, and their big confrontation was scripted particularly well. But in truth some of the best stuff comes from “the Machine”, and I don’t mean when he is just being “the Machine”: it’s when he’s serious that the wordplay really comes to the fore with the character. I said that every sub-plot, bar one, was given enough time and notice to become really fleshed and part of that was the quality of the script work, able to get across many themes and ideas in a very short space of time.
But The Stag is also very funny as well. Some of the jokes might go over the heads of those from outside Ireland, much like The Guard, but the majority is accessible, enjoyable and fairly ribald. “The Machine” takes the lead in this, from his unique approach to hiking (without supplies or compass) to his obsession with the music of U2, and the physical angle, as he attempts to hop electric fences and then nearly gets killed stealing some eggs. This all comes with a never ending succession of clashes with other characters, allowing him to spew forth his eclectic assortment of various good-natured insults, that only really begin to grate by the time the second act is drawing to a close. But the others all get their moments in the spotlight too, with comedy and humour full of modern Irish wit and modern Irish brashness when required. I think the script is an excellent example of the craft coming out of Ireland, doing its part in making sure that the drama and the comedy mix well. There’s nothing too puerile about it, as you might fear from a film about stag nights. It’s an intelligent comedy, and that sets it miles apart from the likes of The Hangover.
An acceptable enough soundtrack backs everything up, with Scott and McDonald offering some rather decent tunes of their own. They’re the real highlight of course, and The Stag isn’t really very notable on the auditory level beyond them.
So, onto themes. I suppose the one that spoke to me most obviously was one of masculinity, or rather what masculinity is in the modern world. “The Machine” encapsulates much of what traditional masculinity supposedly is: loud, brash, insulting in a good natured way, heavy drinking, misogynistic, experience obsessed, nonchalant about everything. He is the perfect kind of character to associate with what we would describe as the standard stag do.
But “the Machine” is the odd man out in The Stag’s troop of characters. Simon is quiet, reserved and rather depressed. The Kevin’s are homosexual and not secretive about it. Davin is a bit of a ladies’ man, but desperately unhappy about it really, obsessed still with one particular woman he can’t get over. And Fionnan is a “metrosexual”, a modern man comfortably in touch with what we might call a feminine side, more eager to discuss tiny details of the wedding than anything to do with a stag night.
They can still drink, curse and go wandering around the wilderness, but they’re not “lads”, not in the way the word has come to be used. For them, walking around the mountains is a rare and unique experience, not something they do regularly (except for Davin). For “the Machine”, it’s just another experience, though even he is hiding a softer side.
So, The Stag then is an exploration of what masculinity really means in modern Ireland. We are given six men who represent much of what the male make-up of modern Ireland is, but nearly all of them are engaged in some form of self-deception about it. Davin is hiding his infatuation with one woman behind a mask of being “a player”, Fionnan seems blissfully unaware of his friends feelings, the “Kevin’s” are tolerating the bigotry of Fionnan’s father to avoid a fuss at the wedding, Simon is covering up his financial problems and “the Machine” refuses to apologise to his wife. By the end, we can safely say that none of them come close to embodying the traditional masculine persona, nor do they want to – five of them are outright disgusted by “the Machine’s” normal behaviour.
There is an interesting look at how masculine culture has moved on from traditional roles associated with barbarism, and how such modern men react when thrust back into such environment (hint: not well) while leaving plenty of room for humour in such things. That kind of barbarism is another key theme, in connection with masculinity. The Stag see’s these six men stripped of just about everything: gear, clothes, dignity.
By the end of their trip, they’re walking around Wicklow roads with some branches to cover their genitalia and little else, reduced to stealing eggs for sustenance. A succession of disasters brings them to that point – “the Machine” dumping the compass, losing their campsite, the relationship breakdown between Fionnan and Davin – and the group looks especially unlikely to really survive out in the wilds under such conditions. These modern men are brought back to a barbaric state of being, and can’t wait to get back to the comforts of civilisation as fast as possible. I suppose the point might be that traditional masculinity, and its association with rough-and-tumble wildman living, is vastly overrated and completely unmatchable with what men are like in the modern world, at least in urban Ireland.
Lastly, there is an obvious theme of friendship throughout the course of The Stag. Fionnan and Davin are presented as best friends from the start, but always with a very real edge to their affairs. They suffer some very damaging tribulations throughout the story, but by the end all is well again (perhaps to too much of an extent really). The Stag then approaches friendship as something that can be tested but, if really true, then it cannot be broken, not by clashes over women, and not by anything like what this Stag group undergoes. Friends stick by each other when things get really bad. Fionnan and Davin experience those moments, but their relationship is close enough to work through it. In that way, the group do live up to at least one part of the traditional masculine picture: there is a certain amount of emotional burial, rather than real facing up to very complicated and damaging issues, not least the fact that the best man has a thing for the bride.
The Stag is, overall, a very enjoyable film. It has some great character drama driving forward its main plots, and intersperses it with plenty of intelligent and some not-so-intelligent humour, just so you don’t forget what the primary draw is. One non-central character is given a bit too much of the limelight really, but that’s the only major flaw I can find with the film, outside of the rather overly tidy nature of its conclusion. The central exploration is solid and most of the cast does excellently. While not scaling the heights of Irish cinema as much as it possibly could have, it’s another star effort from my native film industry. Long may such work continue.
(All images are copyright of Arrow Films).