‘In the Land of Saints and Sinners’ Review: Liam Neeson Is Back

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It’s only been six months since the release of Liam Neeson’s last film, which means theaters are overdue for another thriller led by the prolific star. His latest vehicle, “In the Land of Saints and Sinners,” arrives with an unusual distinction: Directed by Robert Lorenz, the film premiered in Venice a month before another Neeson movie, the maligned bomb-threat thriller “Retribution,” hit U.S. screens. Being selected by such a festival lends ”Saints and Sinners” a whiff of prestige, which it decidedly earns. In fact, the film practically resembles a “one for me” endeavor for the star, with its windswept Irish landscapes and thoughtful reserve, putting the actor among an ensemble of his fellow countrymen and providing the performances room to find poignancy.

The story opens with its most suspenseful action: a bombing by an IRA platoon in Belfast that accidentally kills a group of young children, setting a woeful tone for the rest of the proceedings. Led by their fiery, resolute leader Doireann McCann (Kerry Condon), the group heads for the hills into hiding. The escape puts them on a collision course with Finbar Murphy (Neeson), a local widower who moonlights as a hitman, now looking to turn a new leaf after a career of killing. 

So, it’s a Western: a yarn about how civilized lifestyles are threatened and protected by acts of violence. If that thematic line isn’t convincing enough, “Saints and Sinners” certainly shares the genre’s interests on-screen too. Filmed on location across Donegal county, the feature luxuriates in natural splendor, in rocky cliffsides and rolling emerald hills (oftentimes with staid drone photography). And then there’s the collection of bright actors to play Finbar’s neighbors — decades-familiar drinking buddies and kind-hearted peers — evoking the intimacy of a remote, one-road town.  

That warmth also serves as a form of resilience. The community seems wary about the country’s civil conflict, but also roundly desensitized by decades of sporadic, bloody attacks. “Saints and Sinners” doesn’t stake out a moral stance on the Troubles, but its interest isn’t just cosmetic. Rather, the political backdrop is evoked to elevate the film’s tragedy and blur the righteousness of its characters, many of whom are possessed by a moral obligation to commit acts of violence.

The film represents a reunion for director Lorenz and Neeson, who collaborated on the 2021 U.S.-Mexico border thriller “The Marksman.” Before that though, Lorenz was a longtime producer and AD for Clint Eastwood, even directing the walking icon for his 2011 feature debut “Trouble With the Curve.” Lorenz doesn’t have the gift for understatement or effortless form that Eastwood does, but the two are similarly taken by melancholy. It rings true here, centering on the 71-year-old Neeson’s weathered, regretful scowl.

That striving for grace extends beyond the film’s leading man, too, and can be found in even the smallest comic relief characters and especially in Condon’s big bad. Scoring her best role yet after her Oscar-nominated turn in “The Banshees of Inisherin,” Condon chews plenty of scenery cussing out nervous IRA confidantes and standing off with Neeson. But her best moment — and the film’s one truly great scene — isn’t the one when she blows a man’s brains out, but the one right after that. After her gunshots awaken her target’s elderly mother, Doireann is quick to conceal herself before calmly and apologetically explaining the situation. “He deserved it,” she asserts, breaking the woman’s heart.

It’s the type of patient, offbeat gesture that breathes life into “Saints and Sinners.” The film tends to overenunciate the pathos of more consequential moments, particularly involving endangered children. The opening bombing’s dangling of collateral damage is rather tasteless, and even less nuanced is the abuse that one young girl suffers at the hands of McCann’s brother, Curtis (Desmond Eastwood) — a grievance that Murphy notices and punishes, vigilante style, sparking the long fuse that leads to a climactic shootout between himself and the IRA soldiers. When it comes time to move the story along, Lorenz often betrays his filmmaking’s lax virtues.

There are pleasant detours aplenty, but “Saints and Sinners” doesn’t pretend that it won’t end in bloodshed. The feature finds its essential tension in its approach to Neeson’s on-screen image — here, playing a gentle elder embedded in a quiet town, but also unforgettably an actor that has buttered his bread shooting up criminal henchmen for nearly two decades now. When Finbar floats the idea of hanging up his rifle, he makes a half-baked but heartfelt retirement proposal: “I could plant a garden.” The statement is met with a guffaw; it’s one that the audience can share in.

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