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The Long and Short of It: ‘Barry Lyndon’

by on April 21, 2017
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Illustration by Jenn Marie Harmeson

In “The Long and Short of It” series, Sam Watermeier writes concise reviews of long epics he’s been putting off watching for years. These are the movies that came in bulky two-tape boxes back when VHS was all the rage. This bi-weekly series isn’t about watching Sam torture himself; it’s about watching him experience long-beloved films for the first time.

“Barry’s father would’ve made an eminent figure in his profession … had he not been killed in a duel, which arose over the purchase of some horses.”

Delivered in a deliciously deadpan manner, this opening line of narration sets the sardonic tone of Stanley Kubrick’s costume drama “Barry Lyndon.” Then, from a distance, we see two poised, proper, 18th-century Irish gentlemen fire their flintlock pistols at each other as if they are playing tennis. You can’t help but laugh at the stuffy air of sophistication clouding the consequences of the violence.

Like Kubrick’s most quintessential films, “Barry Lyndon” starts with a sense of cold detachment and takes a detour to explore the brutality beneath the delicately beautiful surface.

The film follows an Irish gambler named Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal) as he sheds the rags of rural Ireland and becomes ensconced among the elite class in England, marrying the wealthy Countess of Lyndon (Marisa Berenson). Revealing much more of the plot would rob you of the painful yet oddly exhilarating gut-punch this movie packs.

“Barry Lyndon” is a dark, twisted tragedy that operates in the same vein as “There Will Be Blood,” seducing you into rooting for a ruthless man even when he reaches all-time lows. It leaves you conflicted — in the same way “Blood” makes you simultaneously side with a ferocious oilman and the people who try to call him out on his savage ways.

When Barry’s stepson (Leon Vitali) crashes the Countess’ birthday party to rightfully criticize him, you’ll feel the boy’s frustration, but your blood will also boil alongside Barry’s. Their confrontation is a wonder to behold — one of the most searing scenes of Kubrick’s career. This fight is far from the formal duel at the beginning of the film.

Like Walter White in “Breaking Bad,” Barry starts as a sad, unlucky man. We sympathize with him and then find ourselves thrilled as he grows into a formidable figure. And when he steps over moral boundaries, we tell ourselves to remember the good-hearted man behind the monstrous behavior.

Barry’s arc could easily make for a compelling TV series like “Breaking Bad.” But it ultimately feels perfect as a three-hour epic. It’s not supposed to be something you chip away at and process over several weeks like a novel or television show. It’s meant to be a sweeping punch to the gut — the kind that leaves you gripping your armrest in the theater or feeling unable to resume your normal routine after turning off the Blu-ray player. It aims to show you a man’s whole life journey in just a few hours and leave you thinking about it for years. This is the kind of film that defines cinema.

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