The Brothers McMullan

Ray Poggi explores how the characters in Edward Burn's film The Brothers McMullan face the choice between the responsibilities (and rewards) of growing up and the temptation to resist.

The Brothers McMullen

by Ray G. Poggi, M.D.

20th Century Fox
Director Edward Burns
Written by Edward Burns
Jack Mulcahy, Mike McGlone
Three brothers are in various stages of changing, psychologically and emotionally, from boys to men. They range in age from twenty-one to early thirties. Various situations with women act as the catalyst for this transformation. For the first time, each is confronted with a women whom they love that forces them to address a dormant conflict between the desire for this particular woman and their wish to stay "boys" and avoid "growing up." The choices focused on in this film to represent this change are being committed to a relationship with one woman and embracing the responsibilities the roles of father and husband conventionally symbolize.

The men in the film are of American-Irish origins. Their father was a violent, alcoholic man who physically abused each of them. Their mother appears to have been the good parent. The film begins in a cemetery in New York City. The family has just finished burying their father. The middle brother, Barry, is speaking with his mother. Everyone else has left. She tells him that she is leaving for Ireland to marry the man she has loved for the 35 years of her tortured relationship with Barry’s father. She asks that he tell his brothers (she is leaving immediately from the cemetery for the airport) and she tells him not make the same mistake she did in marrying his father. Exactly what the mistake was and how to avoid it is left unclear. The obvious assumption is not to marry such a person but, instead, to marry someone you love. But love isn't without its own complications, none of which she addresses with Barry. What those complications are and how they are resolved is what the brothers and the audience learn together during the course of the film.

The youngest brother, Bob, is being pressured by his Jewish girlfriend to marry. He is graduating from College and must get a real life. Is Sylvia going to usher him into that real life? Barry is a confirmed bachelor who ends any relationship that begins to be more than fun and sex. Jack, the oldest of the brothers, is happily married but is now being asked by his wife to begin having children.

Each man has found a way to live as though he were still a boy. Bob is the closest to actually being a boy. He is just now graduating from college. Jack is married to a woman who has not, till now, been wanting children. They are both teachers. Their shared career identities shield him from feeling himself to be the man of the house. She carries on the chores outside the house (lawn, car repair etc.) and he tends to the domestic chores. This role reversal maintains his identification with the good parent (his mother) and places further emotional and psychological distance between himself and the hated father role. Later in the film Bob, Jack’s youngest brother, finds the right girl. She is first seen wearing jeans, jeans jacket and a flannel shirt. It is very hard to tell if she is fat or thin. Her figure is never revealed in the film. She is first met when repairing her father’s car, an activity that blurs the roles that men and women usually play in relationship. The image implies that she can fix things, even phallic things.

Jack works as a coach to the boys' football team at the school where he teaches--an occupation that keeps him in the company of boys and allows him, then, through his empathic connection with them, to enjoy being properly fathered. His occupation also obviates any need he has to father children of his own. He maintains a dual identification (as boy and quasi father) that allows him to satisfy a wish to be a father and allows him to avoid the unsettling anxiety that being an actual father would evoke. In the film he is taking postgraduate courses to become an athletic director, an ambition that implies the taking on of more authority. Hence, he is beginning to test the waters of authorizing himself, giving himself the credentials to be a father, when his wife asks to have children.

Barry gives voice to the brothers' shared conviction that women are the danger to their collusion to not grow up. He is the voice of their collective unconscious. Given that it is their father that they hate, why are women the focus of their conflicts? Women, of course, tempt them to give up the safety of the moral high ground they occupy as children. As victims of abuse they are moral superiors to the abuser and most importantly, they are not him. Being the children of women to whom they cede control over their lives is a role they know and enjoy. As victimized children they share in an identitification with their mother. Of course, their desire for the women is what tempts them to give up the safety of this moral high ground and the identification with their mother in order to enjoy the additional pleasures and satisfactions of the paternal and adult male role. It is that dangerous desire of theirs that, stimulated by women, arouses anxiety. They can then blame the women for forcing these anxieties upon them and then, by equating the experience of anxiety with that of desire, they can then also convince themselves that desire itself is the source of their difficulties. By disowning their own desire, making it the woman’s desire, they can then get rid of one source of anxiety (the tempting desire to become men) by ridding themselves of the other (the women).

Bob struggles to break it off with Sylvia. He tries to accept Barry’s construction of events. That is, that the woman wants to get him under her control. To avoid this simply end the relationship. When Bob tries to do this, he discovers that Sylvia has beaten him to the punch. Tired of his frustrating ambivalence, she has found a another man who is not at all ambivalent. He then is "being abandoned"’ and wonders if he is losing something he will regret having let go. His tortured (albeit comical) Catholicism clouds the issue. His Catholicism introduces fears of hell into an internal dialogue that would best be focused on knowing whether he actually does love Sylvia and does have a strong desire of his own to begin a domestic relationship. Once he kicks out Catholicism, he is free to know his own mind in matters of the heart and goes with Lila (the jeans jacket women).

By the way, the brothers tell each other everything. They are frank about their thoughts and feelings to a startling degree. In some way they represent an internal dialogue between various parts of a single personality made visible through the dramatic device of giving each voice a full character.

At one level then, each brother avoids women because they arouse the desire that threatens to bring them into being the father they fear and despise and threatens to cause them to lose the relationship and identification with their mother: Better to be boys forever than occupy that hated role and identity. However, there is another reason that women are not trusted and separation from mother is avoided.

What kind of mother leaves her children immediately after the death of their father to live with another man? She makes herself completely inaccessible to them. She mistakes their grown up physical stature for a completed emotional development--primarily because she doesn't wish any longer to postpone her desire for a relationship that offers love to her. The brothers' intense and ongoing dialogue is given another significance when placed in the context of this mother-child relationship. They are raising themselves during the course of this film just as they did throughout their childhood. As revealed in the cemetery conversation between Barry and the boys' mother, they have always known that their mother loved another and hated their father. This gave them the hope that love did exist; however, their mother’s position towards their father left a big obstacle to be surmounted. Did women really love the men they were with? If a woman was Catholic, did she want a husband or the man himself?

This confusion about the relationship of the mother to their father must to be resolved sufficiently to allow a new relationship with a woman to develop. The relationship between Molly and Jack most directly addresses the boys' difficulties with their mother. Did Molly marry Jack to have children? Molly is lovely but sexually inhibited . She is very Catholic and is angered by Jack’s reference to his brother being lucky when Sylvia has a miscarriage. She is the ideal Catholic woman. She will never ask for a divorce. But this dependability raises questions about the meaning of her love that are a direct reference to previously unasked but unsettling questions about the meaning of the mother's love. Is she married to a role or to Jack? The affair gave him the opportunity to feel particularly desired. No rules, no morality, and no conventional mores stood between the other woman and her desire for him. He came back from that relationship ready to deal with his fears that Molly loves something else (loves being a good Catholic, loves children etc.) rather than him. He is ready to find out if Molly is actually different from his mother. Molly did confront Jack about his behavior. Certainly his mother did not adequately do this with his father. Are god and duty more important than the lives of the children? Does the individual matter? Sex role blurring can allow one to give up the despised parts of an identity (both for men and women); it doesn’t create an identity. The blurring and confusion of identity can act as a defense (allowing the characters to stay boys forever) or can allow, by being a transitional position, time to construct an identity from the fragments of experience, old and new, that are created by deconstructing the old established identity.

Similar but more secular aspects of the confusion around the meaning of mother's love are raised in the relationship between Sylvia and Bob. Did Sylvia want Bob so that he could be the man who would, like her father, give her everything she wanted? She often spoke of Bob taking gifts (apartment and job) from her father, and at these moments Sylvia sounded as though she had found an acceptable way of marrying her father. Bob was just a cover for that more important desire.

When the mother instructs the boys to marry for love but leaves them to sort out exactly how to know you are loved, she sets the film in motion. The boys seem at first to be struggling only to resolve the identification with the bad parent. However, it isn't long before they must also sort out the confusion surrounding the meaning of love that infused the relationship with their mother. At first it seems that unless you find the perfect partner, the one who truly loves you and no other person and no other cause or thing, you will eventually be hated and then end up hating the spouse you are with. That hatred will fester and turn the relationship into a carbon copy of the miserable one the parents exhibited. The steadfastness of the women in this film seems to support this idealistic view of the "perfect partner." For each man it was important that the women they became involved with knew them , warts and all, and accepted them anyway. Each woman waited for them to come to terms with their own demons. To have pursued or pressured any of these boys would have introduced what could easily have been experienced as an aggressive effort to control them into the relationship that would have confirmed every fear each had of becoming a partner to an adult woman. Of course, the romantic comedy allows each relationship to resolve itself happily. Each woman is able to be exactly what each brother needs at this critical juncture in their lives. The delight we experience when the relationships work out so nicely is in direct proportion to our realization that these guys were impossibly lucky bastards to have found women who could be so understanding. The women didn’t have to be understanding; they would have been quite justified in walking out on the brothers any number of times.

Good fortune and generous, loving women are only one answer given in this film to the question the boys were left to answer on their own. These men also showed a remarkable ability to not repeat their mistakes. They learned and they resolved issues. Any one would be a fool to give up people capable of such honesty and integrity. The sweet character of the brothers makes the women's tenacity in the face of their difficulties believable.

In short, the film seems to indicate several important ideas about change. Change comes not only from separating oneself from the bad parent but also by separating oneself from an idealized relationship with the good parent, in this case the mother. Subtle but critical understandings of love seem to result more from working out the confusion in the relationship with the good parent. Succeeding in making these psychic separations and reconnections requires a fair amount of luck and the courage to take advantage of luck when it occurs. Change also requires meeting people who are not themselves mired in an idealized notion of what either men or women should be like, people who have the stomach for sticking out problems until they are resolved and who are willing to learn even if it is the hard way. Oh, and it pays to have a very good sense of humor. The romantic in me wants to believe that good people have this good luck and a capacity for hard work and that happy endings result more often than not. The pessimist in me thinks this film more accurately describes a good therapy than it does life on the streets.

© Ray G. Poggi 2000. All rights reserved.

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