In Dexter Fletcher’s largely impressive directorial debut Wild Bill, classic Western tropes merge with a recognisably British strain of crime cinema to create an odd, affecting snapshot of troubled father-son relationships within an economically depressed climate.
16-year-old Dean (Will Poulter) lives with his 11-year-old brother Jimmy (Sammy Williams) high up in a barren East End council flat. Old before his time and subsisting on a diet of toast and water, he nevertheless conjures the energy to parent Jimmy and hold down a job as a construction worker on the putative Olympics site. However, his world is about to be turned upside down by the return from incarceration after 8 years of his father; the eponymous Bill (Charlie Creed-Miles).
Almost as soon as the dishevelled, dissolute Bill returns, he comes under pressure from the local band of villains to disappear again, sharpish. Matters are made worse when they poach an impressionable Jimmy for use as a drug mule. Fletcher accomplishes a skilful narrative balancing act, pitting Dean’s personal development (entailing a softening from cynicism into youth) against Bill’s need to eschew his childish irresponsibility and finally become a man under the constant threat of violence. The family dynamic is convincingly fraught and touching, and the inexorable, ticking clock pacing of the script, though occasionally schematic in plot turn, is redolent of High Noon. All the while, the tension of the story is augmented by the striking contrast between the expanding Olympics site which towers over the characters, and the corrosive poverty and criminality which lies not 100 yards away.
Fletcher, previously a child actor (The Elephant Man, The Long Good Friday) clearly has a way with the young thesps, coaxing from them convincing, open performances. Poulter as Dean is particularly strong as a young man with the weight of the world on his shoulders. Meanwhile, Nil By Mouth‘s flinty-eyed Creed-Miles (who resembles a grizzled Cockney cousin of Billy Bob Thornton) shifts through the gears from self-pity to steely resolve with consummate skill.
Other elements of the film language coalesce to create a strong sense of place. The locations are expertly chosen, and root the narrative in contemporary themes of economic depression and area regeneration. The sheer physical remove of the family’s council flat spatially and thematically isolates them, and recalls the cramped, pathos-fuelled social dislocation of Only Fools And Horses‘ Trotter clan. Furthermore, the lofty deposition allows cinematographer George Richmond to capture some breathtakingly steely panoramas of the capital.
Wild Bill‘s finest moment by some distance occurs when Bill, alongside Jimmy, releases a paper aeroplane from their balcony. The plane darts out into the grey-blue sky, but the anticipated cut doesn’t come; instead, Richmond follows the darting projectile with delicate skill, and for a moment, the world – real and imagined – disappears, with father and son, director and cinematographer, actor and audience united in the joy, suspense and ultimate release of the sequence. It’s sheer poetry.
The music and soundtrack choices are uniformly excellent and rootsy, from the booming bass of The Clash’s ‘The Guns Of Brixton’, through a cracking selection of dub reggae, and finally Mark Hollis’ ‘Watershed’, recalling Jacques Audiard’s use of Talk Talk’s menacingly bucolic music in his 2010 masterpiece A Prophet.
However, as impressive as it is in many ways, Wild Bill is not without its flaws, the most egregious of which is a retrograde approach to its female characters. The biggest misstep is an alarmingly distasteful scene in which a compliant, drug-addicted prostitute (Liz White, who makes the most of a thankless role) is first offered to Dean as a birthday present before being rejected and roundly humiliated. It leaves a nasty taste in the mouth that’s hard to shake, and calcifies the film’s unsophisticated representation of the fairer sex. While Bill’s given a luxuriantly indulgent shot at redemption, Jimmy and Dean’s mum is simply nowhere to be seen. Meanwhile young parent Steph, while played with real spirit by Charlotte Spencer, is only really there to advance the plot, and to make Dean feel better about himself. Defenders of the film’s attitude to women may argue that it simply reflects the macho milieu in which it’s set, but there’s little excuse for the key women characters to be so comprehensively denied a voice.
Furthermore, though the principal actors do a sterling job, the remainder of the casting is rather hit-and-miss. Misfits’ Iwan Rheon is appallingly cast and poorly written as a comedy rudeboy, while many of the bigger names who appear (including Marc Warren as a drunken layabout and Olivia Williams as Bill’s case worker) are simply distracting, and take away from the carefully constructed aura of jumpy menace that’s created elsewhere. The increasingly cameo-friendly Andy Serkis (all that mo-cap must really knacker a man out) also turns up in an incongruously flashy role as a sleazy gang honcho, alarmingly similar to the one he played in 2011 hyper-turkey Brighton Rock.
On balance though, the positives outweight the negatives, and one would need a heart of granite to not be moved by the gentle development of the relationship between father and son, and Bill’s late, late coming of age (however much it ultimately recourses to neolithic manifestations of primal masculine identity). Wild Bill is a stylish, savvy, funny and heartfelt work which hints at greater things to come from its director, and deserves to sit alongside the likes of Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa in the canon of hard, sentimental portraits of London’s darker recesses.