‘Can you still love someone who has done terrible things?’

Property of the State review: Grim chronicle examines systemic failures during disturbed killer Brendan O'Donnell's teenage years

Patrick Gibson (The OA, What Richard Did) is unpredictable and terrifying Brendan O’Donnell who murdered three people in 1994

Film Title: Property of the State

Director: Kit Ryan

Starring: Patrick Gibson, Aisling Loftus, David Rawle, Elaine Cassidy

Genre: Crime

Running Time: 107 min

Thu, Oct 26, 2017, 11:00


 “Can you still love someone who has done terrible things?” asks this troubling film. The answer is complicated.

The true story of Ann Marie O’Donnell, whose brother Brendan O’Donnell was convicted of three murders in the 1996, Property of the State is a relentlessly grim chronicle of systemic failure and institutional abuse.

“I never met anyone in any of the institutions [Brendan] was in who tried to help him”, recalls Ann Marie. Sure enough, even at primary school, her brother is characterised by his teacher as the most disturbed child she has ever encountered. The siblings’ battered mother (Elaine Cassidy) struggles to cope with her damaged son, even when heavily medicated.

By his teens, he’s a time bomb who loves to burn cars and talks to a fox that isn’t there. He comes to the attention of a kindly local farmer, who drives the youngster around departments and facilities, seeking appropriate treatment.

Instead of finding help, the boy is sexually abused, first by a priest, then by a warden at Trinity House detention centre.

Kit Ryan has previously directed two horror movies, Botched and Dementamania. Ironically, his third feature makes for far more horrific viewing. The 1994 murders of Imelda Riney, her 3-year-old son Liam, and Fr Joe Walsh (Hugh O’Conor) happen largely (and wisely) off-screen. But by then, we’ve already witnessed quite enough trauma, enough to make a monster.

Working from Susan Morrall’s script, Ryan’s voiceover-heavy film can feel like a docudrama. Or an illustrated guide to Rotten Ireland: “For years, Ireland allowed this kind of abuse to go unpunished,” we’re told.

It’s hugely sympathetic toward Ann Marie (as essayed by a sorrowful Aisling Loftus), who after 1994, finds herself ostracised and taunted as “the most hated woman in Ireland”. Patrick Gibson (The OA, What Richard Did) is unpredictable and terrifying as the killer.

There are a few bum notes and Northern accents where there shouldn’t be. The use of the song Carrickfergus feels wildly inappropriate. Gerry Lively’s handsome lensing can’t compensate for evident budgetary constraints. Ryan studiously and commendably avoids sensationalism but you still can’t help but wonder: just who is this film for?