What gets to me about The Crying Game is the tension between the weird particularity of its plot and the universality of its pervasive theme. Although it may seem, at first anyway, like a conventional IRA thriller, you can get more from this film by understanding it as a parable about human desire,
My way of getting at such a larger experience is to ask, “Why,” about some of the seemingly extraneous details in this film. For example, what pattern can you see that makes sense of so prominent and superfluous a figure as Col the bartender (Jim Broadbent)?
In case you don’t know the plot— Tarty Jude (Miranda Richardson) lures a black English soldier, Jody (Forest Whitaker), away from a carnival, so that he can be seized by her IRA terrorist group led by Peter Maguire (Adrian Dunbar). Hooded in stifling black canvas, guarded by baby-faced Fergus Hennessy (Stephen Rea), Jody becomes friendly with Fergus. Fergus hesitates when he leads Jody out to shoot him, and Jody runs. Jody dies, though, when a British troop carrier runs over him as he runs across a road. The British destroy the IRA hideout, but Fergus gets away.
Fergus surfaces in London, pretending to be a Scottish construction worker, Jimmy. As they became friends, Jody had showed him a picture of his sweetheart, Dil (Jaye Davidson), and asked Fergus to look her up and buy her a margarita at their favorite bar, The Metro. Jimmy does and rescues her from Dave, a sadistic stalker. She is beautiful and enigmatic and he falls in love with her. The film has a startling surprise for him and us, though.
As Fergus falls in love with Dil, though, the IRA returns. Vengeful and malevolent Jude and cold, moralistic Peter both escaped the destruction of the hideout. Now, by threatening to kill Dil, they try to force Jimmy/Fergus to shoot a British judge as the judge visits his mistress. Jimmy/Fergus tries to save Dil from them by dressing her as a man, and finally, to get her to abandon him, he tells her he killed her lover Jody. Dil ties Jimmy to their bed, and he fails to arrive for the assassination. Peter goes ahead and is killed. Blazing with anger, Jude bursts in on the couple. Dil shoots Jude, and Fergus sends her away so that he can be arrested for the crime.
The final scene shows Dil lovingly visiting Fergus in prison. Fergus tells her a fable that Jody had taught him, of the scorpion who stings the frog who is ferrying him across a river. The film ends with a pan of couples talking across tables in the visitors' room at the prison as the soundtrack plays “Stand By Your Man.”
Back to the why’s.
The film opens with a long shot, across a river, under a bridge, toward the carnival. There Jody is tossing hoops across a moat to win a teddy bear. The pattern is set: crossing obstacles to get what you desire. The pattern ends with the final shot, a pan of couples talking across tables in the visitors' room at the prison.
Across. Desire across barriers is the pattern (like Jordan's earlier Mona Lisa). “You wanted it,” are the first words of this film, and “Stand by your man,” the last. In between we see desire cross such barriers as black-white, Irish-English, terrorist-soldier, and most sensationally, heterosexual-homosexual, male-female.
That is my why for Col the bartender. At first he is an obstacle to be crossed as he stands between Dil and Jimmy/Fergus. Later, on Jimmy’s second visit to the Metro, Col is about to tell him who or what Dil is—when she interrupts with her ‘60s torch song with its telling title, “I Know What There Is to Know About the Crying Game.” And that is the crying game—the pattern in the film of what happens when you reach past barriers and interruptions and get what you desire.
Twice we hear the fable of the frog and the scorpion—why? Once Jody tells it to Fergus, once Fergus tells it to Dil. A frog was going to cross a river when a scorpion asks if he can ride on his back. “You'll sting me,'' says the frog, but the scorpion promises not to. Halfway across, though, the frog feels a “hot spear'' in his side. “Why did you sting me? Now we'll both drown.'' “I couldn't help it,'' explains the scorpion. “It's my nature.''
What’s the pattern? When Jody tells the story, he is reaching out to Fergus from under his canvas hood. The second time, Fergus is reaching toward Dil through the glass with which the British prison separates its terrorist prisoners from their visitors. You can see, but you can't touch. In this film, to see is to desire. As Dil says, “Everybody wants something.” Seeing the other side, we all want to cross that river.'
Hearing, too, embodies desire. Again and again, characters plead, Say something, Talk to me. Jimmy/Fergus and Dil bond around her song and their talk as he reaches for her past the sadistic Dave. Conversation between Jody and Fergus builds their relationship, and for that reason is barred by the terrorist leader (but even Peter can't stand it when their prisoner says nothing for twelve hours!).
And touch, the sense that finally reaches past the obstacles? That is the risky one. Touch is Jody's gross groping of Jude, which leads to his capture; the terrorists' handling of Jody; Fergus' having to hold Jody’s cock so he can pee; ultimately Fergus’ embracing Dil only to make his startling discovery. If you can touch, you can love, but touch is dangerous. Touch in this film tells us that crossing obstacles, getting your desire, hurts. And that is the crying game, that we long to reach out to one another, past obstacles and dangers, yet the act of touch may be catastrophic.
Desire prompts movement. We are driven—moved in a double sense—by our desires. Look at all the motion in this film. Fergus' trip, by car, bicycle, and ship separates the Belfast and London halves of the film. The terrorists' and Dave's cars race to their nasty business, while Dil and Jimmy leisurely stroll. Their meeting place is “The Metro,” a name for a subway. Held by the IRA, both Jody and the terrorists are alike immobile. It is only Fergus who moves him left, right, up, down, step by step. “Come and get me, soldier,” calls Jude as she pulls Jody down to his doom. We even see the old judge at the end hobbling up the steps to his mistress' apartment.
By contrast, vertical shots by the camera are associated with immobility, destruction, or the punishment of desire: the helicopter with the British troops, the loudspeaker on a pole in the opening shots, the elevator and ladder at the construction site where Jimmy suffers under the sadistic boss contractor. When romance is blocked, the lover—Dave or Jimmy—stands in the street looking up at Dil's window. When Jimmy is horrified at Dil's body, he “throws up.”
There is a visual pun there. Jody had bragged of his skill as a bowler in cricket, and when Fergus dreams of him, he dreams of him bowling—a horizontal throw. After Fergus has faced and accepted Dil's body, he dreams that Jody tosses the ball up and down. Jody “throws up.'”
Cricket is a game in which, when there is a hit, the batsmen run to each other's wickets (quite different from the game to which the film contrasts it, Irish hurling). The Crying Game comes to resemble cricket in that people repeatedly change places with one another. Jody is a prisoner at the beginning, Fergus is at the end. Fergus has taken Jody's place with Dil. First Dil cuts “Jimmy's'” hair, later Jimmy cuts hers. First Jude holds Jody's hand while he pees, then Fergus does. Jimmy dresses Dil in Jody's clothes—a cricket player's uniform. Ultimately, Fergus takes Dil's place in prison. “Greater love hath no man,” she dryly says.
That phrase describes the prototype of Christian surrogacy, Christ's giving up his life for mankind’s. Yes, one can do a Christian reading of this film. Jody is held for three days. He is betrayed by Peter and Jud(as), names of two betrayers of Christ. The frog in the fable gets a “hot spear'” in his side. First Jody, then Fergus tell the story of the frog and scorpion like a parable. Fergus counters with, “When I was a child I thought as a child; when I was a man, I put away childish things”, a passage which ends with “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face”. 1 Corinthians 13:11-12 fits poor Jody under his black canvas hood all too aptly.
More to the point, though, is Jody's parable of the frog and the scorpion. He prefaces it by saying there are two kinds of people, “those who give and those who take,” the frog people and the scorpion people. The frog people reach out. The frog just wanted to cross the river and touch the other side, following the basic pattern of this film: crossing barriers to reach what you desire. Jody concludes that Fergus is one of those who give. We can conclude that fanatically fierce Peter and Jude, the cruel contractor-boss, Dave, even the British “Saracen'” that runs Jody down, are the scorpions, those who take. They take advantage of our desires, using them to trap or kill us as the scorpion uses the frog's desire to cross the river to kill him. That is “in their nature,” just as it is in Fergus' nature to take the places of Jody or Dil.
And that, I suppose is Jordan's vision of the human predicament, the logic that governs his choices of inclusion and exclusion. We are driven—moved in a double sense—by our desires and therefore prey to those who would use them to trap and kill us. That is indeed “the crying game.“