The movie's plot is a familiar one. In the opening act, we see a plucky young man, blessed with some good looks and a seedling of talent. Determined to make more of himself, he leaves the war-torn land of his birth and travels to the States in search of something bigger - new hope, new life, New York.
t first, things go well for our youngster, who settles into the American way, success in this dog-eat-dog city adding a swagger to his imposing frame. Then tragedy strikes. A crime is committed, a woman is harmed and our protagonist is left reeling. Filled with rage, he appoints himself her protector, her avenger, and takes to the streets in search of violence - ready to kill an innocent stranger to sate his own thirst for revenge.
In act two, we join the man later in life. He is a widowed husband, a loving father and a starry success, known for his twinkling blue eyes and his soft voice. Then, the man reveals a secret that will change everything. He tells a journalist about his desire to kill a random man of colour as an act of reprisal for the rape of his friend. He professes to be ashamed of this incident and those feelings. The resulting story leaves people across the world rightly shocked, repulsed and scared. The man is publicly denounced and his career looks to be all but over.
If this were a film, the third act would be about growth and forgiveness. The man would come to truly understand the horror of the act he'd wanted to commit. Perhaps he'd meet a woman who had lost an innocent loved one in a racially-motivated attack, who would teach him what it means to forgive. Or possibly he'd encounter an angry and dangerous young man, who he'd take under his wing and show a different path to. Either way, fuelled by shame and sorrow, our protagonist would strive to make the world a better place.
Will Liam Neeson get a third act? Will he be allowed to do public penance for his sin? At the time of writing, that looks unlikely. Following on from his shocking confession during an interview with The London Independent, there were calls for the Ballymena actor to be 'shut down' and even digitally erased from an upcoming movie. While many have defended him, the consensus seems to be that the best solution to this uncomfortable problem would be to silence him and hide him away.
Putting the rights and wrongs of Neeson's confession to one side, what's curious here is the divergence between the fictions we embrace and the realities we reject. I've written before in this newspaper about our appetite for ever darker TV shows, from the gore-fest of Game Of Thrones to the brutality of Peaky Blinders. We're used to seeing characters maim and kill for power. Moral qualms are cast aside early on - the more ruthless the killer, the more successful they are.
Revenge, too, is a popular theme, as the likes of the John Wick series and Neeson's own recent run of "I will find you and I will kill you" movies attest to. Here, our heroes or anti-heroes mindlessly cut down swathes of henchmen - the success of the film indelibly linked to the body count. No matter what the genre, when our central characters take arms against the villians, we applaud them. And yet, when someone confesses to having violent leanings in real life, we are horrified.
I wonder what message this sends, not to Neeson who enjoys a place of privilege that has allowed him to seek help, but to the current generation of angry young men and women of every colour who think that the answer to their problems is throwing a punch or pointing a gun. On screen, they'd be glorified, in real life, vilified. If we simply 'shut down' Neeson with no further discussion, do we risk driving them into the arms of extremists who tell them that these impulses are to be embraced?
Surely we have a responsibility to show them the full picture - complete with a third act - so they can fully understand the moral consequences of their actions. Now that a conversation about rage and violence and inherent racism has been started, surely we are duty bound to take the opportunity to talk, not just about Neeson, but about the rest of us too. The truth, after all, is stranger and much more complex than fiction.