When Promise Runs Off the Track

Director Lenny Abrahamson and actor Jack Reynor, the title character is “What Richard Did.” | TRIBECA FILM

Director Lenny Abrahamson and actor Jack Reynor, the title character is “What Richard Did.” | TRIBECA FILM

What Richard Did” asks viewers to wait on tenterhooks for the rich, handsome title character (the excellent Jack Reynor), to commit a crime that forever changes his life. The second half of this absorbing Irish chamber drama shows how Richard, a teen who is in his final summer before college, reacts to and grapples with the consequences of his actions.

It would, of course, spoil the film to say exactly what it is that Richard does, but director Lenny Abrahamson, working from Kevin Power’s source novel “Bad Day in Blackrock,” creates an intensity and an intimacy before and after Richard’s crime. Every scene is freighted with meaning as this quietly devastating drama builds to its climax. As the film’s protagonist, Reynor never hits a false note.

In separate interviews, Abrahamson and Reynor met with Gay City News to discuss “What Richard Did.”

Jack Reynor scores as privileged, handsome young man who can’t take back his crime

In his lovely Irish accent, director Abrahamson recounted that he connected with the material because he came from a similar background.

“I went to one of the schools that were associated with privilege, so I knew kids like Richard who are successful and able and blessed,” he said.

However, it was the director’s self-image as an outsider — “not part of the privileged middle,” he said — that gave him a perspective on the how to present this nuanced character study. Many teen films about rich, good-looking characters tell stories from the point of view of those on the edges, but “What Richard Did” makes the golden boy the protagonist, examining the pressures he faces and how he copes with them.

Reynor explained, “He has hopes and dreams, things he wants to do, and things he loves. He’s never set out to cause any problems. Richard’s not a bad kid; he’s a nice kid. You want the world to work out for him. All he really wants is harmony, and when that goes away, that’s the tragedy.”

The film creates a delicate balance, making audiences care about Richard’s fate even though his irrevocable action in a moment of rage causes pain to others, including his family, his girlfriend Lara (Róisín Murphy), his friends, and other members of the community who are shocked and saddened by his crime.

Despite the terrible things Richard does, Reynor said, “The most important thing for me is that the audience empathizes with Richard.”

Abrahamson concurred, explaining that his interest in examining the flawed hero goes deeper.

“What the film is trying to do is show the degree to which other people are slippery,” he said. “I posit a very clear character at the beginning, but viewers lose hold of who Richard really is during the film. Film tends to push us toward creating an easy psychological shorthand for a character. And yet, in the experience of life it is impossible to encapsulate a person — they continue to slip out of your grasp.”

One way the filmmaker and the actor hook viewers is by making Richard heroic in the film’s first half. He shows humility and decency, often caring for the weaker ones among his friends and even protecting those who are bullied. Richard sees himself as a decent kid. When guilt overtakes him in the wake of his crime, Reynor said, Richard does things that make him the hero again — even if it is just for a few hours.

“He needs to take that mantle back… to feel respectable again and be the good person he always thought he was,” Reynor said.

Richard’s success in regaining his moorings, however, are fleeting, and that drives him further into despair. The director builds the tension inexorably in scenes where Richard is alone and introspective — at the shoreline, outside a party, or confined in a room that underscores his stress.

“The isolated character is a very dangerous character for a filmmaker,” Abrahamson observed. “If there isn’t really something happening — even if it’s very simple and subliminal — what you end up with is the filmmaker desperately trying to imbue the image with intensity while having some guy look very alone.”

“What Richard Did” avoids this pitfall due to Reynor’s strong performance. The actor explained that it “would have been contrived” for him to try to put himself in Richard’s shoes during the scenes of reflection. Instead, he said, “I was thinking about what’s around me — looking through the window at the trees — that’s what I’m concentrating on.”

A scene in which Richard screams in angst is particularly powerful, as he wakes up from a serene sleep but immediately reconnects to his despair and anger.

“The things most present in your mind will always hit you straightaway when you wake up,” Reynor said of his preparation for that scene. “In that moment, he wakes up and he’s petrified and disgusted, and just can’t face it or hold it in anymore.”

How Richard copes with the consequences of his actions and makes decisions about his future are perhaps the most interesting and telling aspects of “What Richard Did.” The film is deliberately ambiguous, something that will certainly spark discussion and disagreement among viewers.

“You’re looking at a boy with tremendous opportunity,” Abrahamson explained. “He’s trying to negotiate grabbing hold of that opportunity and still maintain a sense of himself as valuable. It’s not an ordinary portrait of guilt. He isn’t courageous. He is egotistical and narcissistic. I refuse to let the audience off the hook. You have to keep looking at him. That’s the end of the story I wanted to tell.”

WHAT RICHARD DID | Directed by Lenny Abrahamson | Tribeca Film | Opens May 10 | Cinema Village | 22 E. 12th St. | cinemavillage.com