The idea of an Irish western sounds a bit odd but think about it a little and there have been a number of films which have used elements of the horse opera - 'I Went Down', 'Into the West' and 'Mickybo and Me', to name three. 'Middletown', too, can join that list, and is by far the most unusual of the lot.
Returning home from the missions to the one-horse Middletown, Preacher Gabriel (Macfadyen) isn't looking at his new posting as an easy life and a chance to reconnect with his ailing father Bill (McSorley) and hustler brother Jim (Mays). Instead, he thinks the locals and his family have all travelled some distance down the path of the damned and need to be saved from themselves and each other.
The welcome home meal is barely over before Gabriel launches into his crusade - terrorising his flock for having a drink on Sunday, amplifying the fear of death and need to make amends in his own father, driving an even greater wedge between himself and Jim and deciding that Jim's pregnant barmaid wife Caroline (Birthistle) is the greatest sinner of them all. It's only a matter of time before someone gets hurt.
Award-winning director McKirk and playwright Daragh McCarville do many things right here, in particular capturing the suffocating nature of small town life on the island of Ireland in the 1950/60s – seen here from a non-Catholic perspective. The acting is strong and the film's look is superb, but 'Middletown' is a film which would have had greater impact if it didn't try to be so powerful all the time.
The biggest problem with the film is the character of Gabriel. As both villain and victim of the story he needed to be made human; instead he often comes across as The Terminator with a collar. Macfadyen is chilling in the role but he should have been given more to work with because with a few chinks in the armour Gabriel would have been more compelling. We also never learn why Gabriel is so unhinged and while some would argue as to whether that's really necessary, for others it further strengthens the belief of a complex character reduced towards the one dimensional.
Kirk and McCarville also needed to rethink the film's closing stages. Here subtlety and things left unsaid would have worked best but instead the duo opt for a big ending and the thriller conventions they employ are far from convincing. In their bid to ramp up the tension, 'Middletown' becomes less not more interesting and the final standoff feels like it belongs in a different film – one with less going for it than this one.
A thought-provoking work, but far from the must see it had the potential to be.