The latest film to dramatise the horrors of Northern Ireland, 'Resurrection Man', has been attacked for its portrayal of a Loyalist gang as nothing more than psychopaths, motivated only by a lust for violence. But argues John Lyttle, that was jus t what they were

The producer Andrew Eaton always suspected that a movie version of Eoin McNamee's acclaimed novel, Resurrection Man, might prove controversial. Here, after all, was an elegant, yet Gothic and unsparing book based on the notorious Shankill Butchers, a gang of psychopaths and sadists who were able to use their status as Loyalist hard men to sate their bloodlust, cruising the night streets of Belfast, picking up Catholics at random, stabbing, skinning, crucifying. And worse. After a while, the Butchers turned their attention to Protestants, too. To anyone, in fact, who took their fancy. Sectarian politics and private madness. Very potent.

So, yes, Eaton agrees, he knew any movie translation "might attract flak", particularly if it chose to make its crimes not merely physically ugly, but spiritually empty. Resurrection Man is dead at the centre, and its hollowness is what makes it the most effective - the most precisely primal - film about Northern Ireland to date , though last year's Nothing Personal, with its portrayal of feuding, Mafia-style paramilitaries, got pretty close when it wasn't wringing its hands. Eaton, McNamee and director Marc Evans dissect the heart of darkness. It has the mood, the atmosphere, the moves. Eaton nods: "There was the violence, of course, though it's far less gruesome than the reality. We made sure it was stylised, with freeze frames, distorted angles, music. And once the nature of the violence is established, it's less in evidence as the story proceeds. But if you don't like violent movies, then Resurrection Man isn't the movie for you. I accept that. I was listening to Kaleidoscope and heard Paul Gambaccini admit he'd walked out because he couldn't take it. I understood that." Eaton pauses. He doesn't want to sound embattled. Only it bursts out: "Then he said it was unacceptable because it wasn't motivated. The characters weren't motivated. But that's the point! There wasn't a motive. The Butchers did what they did because they liked it. That's why the horror of their crimes stood out even in Northern Ireland."

Eaton shakes his head. He knows , of course, that there are things about Northern Ireland that critics can't face, or become pious or pompous over, not realising how laughable, how irritating, their ignorance can be to those of us born and bred in the cauldron. They stand outside the situation as if it's nothing to do with them, and deliver judgement. The judgement is usually propaganda. Eaton says: "Gambaccini said the film insults those who lived there in Belfast during the Seventies by making the city seem a terrible place. It was a terrible place. I was there. I know."

So was I.

Resurrection Man, with its after-hours drinking dens, dingy houses and drunken, macho swagger, is black truth. Eaton shrugs, "What are these people thinking of?"

A good question to ask when dealing with the incoherent, semi-hysterical and factually inaccurate piece the Daily Mail's film critic Christopher Tookey wrote this week. After practically accusing Resurrection Man of helping derail the current peace process - as if the resumption of Loyalists' random sectarian killings with the film's release was calculated, not coincidence - Tookey goes on (and on) to lump the film in with work he deems IRA apologia: A Further Gesture, Some Mother's Son, In The Name of The Father, Hidden Agenda, The Devil's Own, Jackal. A blunder, and a cruel one.

Eaton swallows his rage: "My father was killed by the IRA. Murdered. I'm hardly likely to have forgotten that. So why would I be apologising for them? I know what Tookey wrote doesn't bear intelligent scrutiny, but it's insulting, too. He's saying that I'm not entitled to an opinion about Northern Ireland or to make a film about a period of its history. He says the film undermines democracy while advocating censorship of views he disagrees with. I don't need him to tell me what I can and can't say about Northern Ireland."

Apparently, what Resurrection Man can't say is that Protestant violence is as bad as IRA violence. That, it seems, lets the IRA off the hook. Tookey writes that the film is "a poisonous outpouring of anti-Unionist hatred ... the audience is clearly meant to hate the gang's leader (played by Stuart Townsend) and rejoice when he is gunned down...".

Well, one would certainly like to hope so. It might come as news to Tookey, but when Lenny Murphy, the real-life Medusa head of the Shankill Butchers, was gunned down, the rumour was that the UVF leadership had asked the IRA to do the deed and that huge, repulsed sections of the Protestant community he presumes to defend and speak for, sighed with relief. Tookey overstates, and has a problem accepting facts that I for one find banal: "A Protestant girl is sexually excited by the killing of Catholics; a Protestant mother defends her psychotic son surrounded by Unionist memorabilia and pictures of the Queen; two Protestant old age pensioners dance inches away from a dying torture victim; a Protestant journalist helps to publicise the terror campaign, then beats up his wife..." Actually, the journalist (played by James Nesbitt) is a Catholic and he's desperate to alert a deadened populace to even greater monsters in their midst. But we'll let it pass.

Except Tookey can't: "The whole Protestant community is implicated in the gang's savagery." Tookey sees propaganda everywhere, when the shocking thing about Resurrection Man is how its lack of point mirrors the killers lack of motive. It doesn't play the tired game of "a plague on both your houses" and it singularly resists articulating a position. Though set in the Seventies, the film staggers with the exhaustion of now. On some level, Resurrection Man is beyond caring. It hurts too much to hope. Tookey would be on firmer ground objecting that the movie actually turns Northern Ireland into a crude horror show.

Eaton is a bit sick of it: "When I produced Roddy Doyle's Family for television, we had the same reaction: 'Are you implying all Irish families are like this?' The answer is no. We're not implicating anyone specifically. But you can't have everything neat and tidy. What's Resurrection Man about? It's about chaos. We didn't set out to provide reasons. We can't explain why people did those things. Once you start, you're on the road to excuses, and I think that's what Tookey partially does. Excuses. It's insane. That's the real insanity."

Ryan Gilbey on Resurrection Man and the week's new releases: pages 8 & 9.