Lenny Abrahamson's first two features told stories about characters on the margins of society. The title characters in Adam & Paul were a pair of comically misfortunate junkies stumbling through the Dublin streets, while the protagonist in Garage was a slow-witted man in a rural community who unwittingly found himself committing a crime. In What Richard Did, Abrahamson's third film, the central character comes from a far more affluent background and appears to be a young man with the world at his feet. Richard (Jack Reynor) is an 18 year-old rugby star who is looking forward to university. We meet him in the last few weeks of his summer break, as he spends time drinking good-naturedly with friends, and it's easy to see why this witty, thoughtful and endearing young man is so popular.
The skilled performance of Reynor as Richard gives the character a certain cockiness but ensures he remains likable, and few audience members will be able to resist his charm. In this way, What Richard Did deeply involves the viewer in his story before the mid-film twist that suddenly changes the whole tenor of the film. Signs of trouble are evident when Richard starts seeing Lara (Róisín Murphy), but suspects her of still having feelings for her ex-boyfriend, and Richard's teammate, Conor (Sam Keeley). Tensions simmer quietly until Richard and Conor's mutual resentment boils over at a drunken party, with both men fuelled by a misguided sense of romance, wounded pride and too much alcohol. Punches and kicks are thrown as the pair's friends pile in to the fray, and in the morning Richard wakes up to hear that Conor's body has been found.
After the crime, we await the punishment, but What Richard Did isn't as simple as that. The investigation into Conor's death doesn't finger him as the culprit, and when Richard passes off his facial wounds as rugby injuries to the police it appears that he is in the clear, but the weight of responsibility is less easy to shake off. Abrahamson's film explores the sense of guilt that Richard is forced to wrestle with as he avoids prosecution. He and his friends collude on a cover story, but their deceit begins to gnaw away at them, and when Richard confides in his father, he responds by offering to help keep the boy out of sight until the heat dies down. At Conor's funeral, the deceased boy's mother stands up and makes an impassioned plea for someone to come forward with the truth, and we can Richard's internal moral conflict written across his face. He wants to do the right thing, but can he sacrifice his prosperous future to atone for one mistake?
What Richard Did is the first film Lenny Abrahamson has adapted from a novel – Malcolm Campbell's screenplay being based on Kevin Power's Bad Day in Blackrock – but it feels very much of a piece with his previous films. The director has a spare, naturalistic style that feels very unforced, and he draws uniformly convincing performances from his young cast, trusting them to carry a number of ambiguous and emotionally testing scenes. This is a more sombre film than Adam & Paul or Garage, both of which leavened their unsettling tales with a dry sense of humour, but it proves to be uncommonly gripping for much of its running time.
Abrahamson's unwillingness to offer any clear-cut conclusion to Richard's plight is admirable but it also means the film drifts a little in its final scenes, although perhaps it is simply taking its lead from the central character, whose hitherto promising life has suddenly lost direction. What Richard Did is a powerful examination of how the repercussions from one incident can last a lifetime, and its effect lingers long after the credits have rolled.