"Beauty and horror...all the things great art is made from."
Until two months ago, I had never heard of the term "scally". But while interviewing a production company president for an article I was writing for a publication that focuses on another genre of film (let's just say it rhymes with "corn"), I asked about the term--a bit of U.K. slang used to describe a "rough and unkempt British street lad." The research served me well for Shank, a low-budget indie effort from across the pond that I missed during D.C.'s Reel Affirmations--one of many gay and lesbian film festivals the film played in 2009.
And there's no doubt that young Cal (Wayne Virgo) is a scally living on the edge--in the opening minutes, we witness him cruising for sex online, snorting coke off his dashboard, drinking while driving (without a seatbelt!), speeding and--for good measure--head butting his trick in the woods after a bareback quickie, abandoning the dazed and bloody stranger in the woods. It's not that easy to warm up to the punk, who we soon discover is a gang member keeping his homosexuality under wraps (for obvious reasons).
That's a task made particularly challenging given his attraction to bud Jonno (Tom Bott), an alpha male meathead who--despite his staunch displays of heterosexuality--doesn't mind engaging in shirtless bouts of blowback (a.k.a. shotgunning) as the two smoke pot in Cal's "shit heap" car. The two also stare each other down in some machismo standoffs, but Cal is too afraid to profess his true feelings. And with the violent-prone Nessa (Alice Payne) constantly yelling in his ear, is it any wonder? The two clearly they have a past, but Nessa is now fixated on Jonno--who seems to view her as nothing more than a pleasure vessel.
It's a lifestyle that starts to wear down Cal, who finally snaps when the trio stops for one of their favorite pastimes: gay bashing a stranger, which they film for further enjoyment. The victim this time is Olivier (Marc Laurent), a young Frenchman caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. The art history student is soon bruised and bloodied before Cal steps in to stop the beatdown, much to the surprise of his cohorts--who start to question why their buddy has suddenly gone soft. Now fearing for his own safety, Cal follows Olivier home and asks for help as the two strike up an unlikely bond (despite Cal's continued proclamations that "I ain't queer!").
Meanwhile, we witness interludes with our opening victim Scott (Garry Summers)--who confesses his sins during therapy sessions that reveal his troubles: "It was dangerous...it was also exciting, the adrenaline rush. I just wanted to feel 'out' of it...removed." He has a connection to another character that is soon unveiled, and he also holds one of the film's secrets--which are slowly unveiled as Shank progresses to its inevitable conclusion, a violent showdown that threatens to shatter the lives of all the main characters.
Set in Bristol, the film--much like Cal's life--is bleak and dreary in both tone and appearance. The directorial debut of Simon Pearce--working off a script from first-time screenwriters Darren Flaxstone and Christian Martin (who also has a small role)--Shank is appropriately green, and very rough around the edges. It's not quite as tough as it thinks it is: Nessa exhibits her rebellion by (are you ready for this?) spray painting graffiti on walls (isn't that soooo 1984?), while a rooftop clash (where a suggestive shank reference will be hard to decipher for the non-Brit viewers, who may have to concentrate a few times to understand the thicker-accented dialogue) is another example of cute kids unable to fully pull off the street thug persona (Payne overdoes it just a bit throughout).
Most of the actors aren't quite up to the task, but they all give it a good try. This is a small film with some very hefty subject matter--ambitious material that they can't quite pull off. That's mainly due to the performances of Virgo and Laurent. I'm not sure Virgo was the perfect choice for the lead--he's good, but he's a little too innocent and cute in appearance and manner, so you don't quite buy into his character. He's not quite there yet as a dramatic actor, and the story asks a lot of him (his dry crying scene near the 33-minute mark was a noticeable failure). The script also ignores any back story, and I wanted to know at least a little more about Cal's life--what brought him to where he is today? What's his family situation?
Virgo also has about zero chemistry with Laurent (who fares much worse than his co-star), and their courtship is hard to buy in the first place--it happens so quickly and so easily, like the film suddenly decided it wanted to be a clichéd romantic drama, a tone that doesn't mesh with the rest of its gritty realism. The development is the film's biggest flaw, more due to its execution: Their courtship feels inauthentic, and the Frenchman has his own problems with dialogue--he can't convey a believable range of emotions, especially the more serious ones. It often appears as if he's just reading lines, and I never really felt that Olivier was real--just a necessary device to move the story. A key conversation between the two toward the end is a bust; they look and sound like they're acting individually, and neither is convincing.
Far more interesting is the dynamic between Cal and Jonno, and their arc provides the film's spark. Bott strikes a surprisingly effective balance between macho and vulnerable--his inner conflict is brought to life through simple yet highly effective expressions during two close encounters with Cal. Bott's face hints at conflict just below the surface, and he is far more convincing as a gang member--and ultimately is better at bringing the film's central conflict to life (perhaps he would have been better served in the lead role). Summers joins him as the film's other strongest performer--I constantly found myself wishing for more screen time with Scott. Nonetheless, the cast and crew still delivers some inspired moments--a nice racking shot when Cal enters Olivier's room near the 44-minute mark shows some talent behind the camera, while some individual shots (like those in the chilling graveyard scene) hint at a poetic heart. And the dramatic conclusion manages to pack a punch (despite the inclusion of the phrase "ass bandit").
That helps me forgive a few flaws, like the signature sex scene--which just didn't have the impact it was supposed to (as best as I can tell, this edition is "unrated" thanks to some very brief shots of some full frontal flaccid actors). There's also a few other semi-pornographic moments and--even worse--an overused, annoying riff from the score that sounds like it was transferred from a 1984 Mac. The distracting cue is primarily used to fill scenes, and it just cheapens the overall impact--along with the super cheap title sequences, it's the biggest sign of the film's smaller budget (silence would have been far better).
With a little more experience from everyone involved--and a greater focus on the film's more intriguing relationship and character--this could have been a homerun. But there's no shame in a base hit. Shank gives it an admirable try, and even with its shortcomings it still had me invested enough in its characters and the outcome (you'll probably see the final minor twist coming, but it still works). The filmmakers have tried to breathe new life into the coming out (and coming of age) story that we've seen so many times in gay-themed cinema. While Shank doesn't come anywhere close to matching the power and emotional impact of countryman Beautiful Thing (one of my all-time favorites), I appreciate the effort.
The film arrives in an anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer that looks pretty good for a small-budget indie flick. Much of the film is intentionally dull and drab, but save for a few scenes (mostly exterior long shots) that aren't quite as sharp and have grain, the image is solid and crisp--with surprising detail in many shots. It's less than pristine, but doesn't detract from the experience.
The 2.0 track is adequate; the biggest challenge is adapting to some of the thicker accents early on--I had to concentrate a few times, and even that didn't help. A stronger track may have cleared up some of those minor problems, but it probably wouldn't have solved it completely. I was more comfortable with the dialogue as the film went on, so if you can't get past the first 20 minutes or so you should be fine.
The most enjoyable extra is the behind-the-scenes feature Shank...From Behind (39:12, in non-anamorphic widescreen like the rest of the extras). Co-writers Christian Martin (also a producer) and Darren Flaxstone (also the editor) guide us through various parts of production, from the story's conception, pre-production and casting to shooting some of the film's scenes (made more difficult by that annoying rain). Interview clips, auditions and behind-the-scenes footage is included, and we hear from other cast and crew members along the way (including director Simon Pearce, who looks really young, and Marc Laurent, who had never been intimate with a man before).
"We wanted to be engaged," says Martin. "I love European films, especially emerging European countries that have coming of age, coming out, rites of passage movies because they always culturally tell those stories from their perspective. We've had our Beautiful Thing, we've had our Get Real...we've had our Maurices, so we're very used to the story of coming out and it had kind of become a bit clichéd. And we decided with this one that we wanted to try and push the envelope a little bit more, but actually tell it as more from the dramatic point of view than necessarily the story about someone coming out. So it's really more a drama in which someone just happens to be gay, and the narrative takes him through the process of accepting who he is."
Martin also acknowledges the difficulty of embracing Olivier; at one point, he feared the character would come across "flat". Much of the effort is filmed by casting director Bernie Hodges (who also has a small role in the film), who provides a few laughs when he's in front of the camera here (love the umbrella gag). I was also excited when I realized the sweatpants worn by actor Garry Summers in the opening scene were the exact same Gap brand sweatpants I was wearing while watching the film (and as I write this review! Isn't that exciting?!).
Martin, Flaxstone and Pearce also return for an audio commentary, which is pretty dry and boring. It's full of information, but is too technically skewed and lacks the energy required to sustain another viewing. Also included are two deleted scenes (3:08), neither of which is necessary; a short collection of outtakes (4:39) featuring some bloopers and chuckles behind the scenes; the film's trailer and trailers for other TLA releases.
Beautiful Thing, this ain't. The kids aren't alright across the pond, and this low-budget indie from England puts a new twist on the coming out (and coming of age) template as a troubled gang member tries to break away from two false lives. Shank can't fully pull off the tough, gritty realism it aims for (the acting isn't quite up to the challenge), and it doesn't focus on its strongest relationship. But it still manages to keep you invested enough in its characters and outcome--and a few powerful moments provide a nice payoff. Rent It.