Tag Archives: western

Wild West, Wild East, Wild Bill

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.

Meek’s Cutoff

We've all been there

A few years back, an American friend introduced me to the joys of Oregon Trail, a rudimentary video game from the 1970s in which your mission is to navigate a band of pioneers across the treacherous West. Without warning, one of your party could fall ill and drop dead from a range of ghastly, horribly realistic ailments including dysentery, cholera or even a broken leg. A gorehound hack in the vein of Eli Roth could have had a gay old time recreating the exploding pustules and festering sores in living colour but thankfully Meek’s Cutoff – essentially the film adaptation of the game – is the product of one of the most considered, restrained directors working today: Wendy & Lucy’s Kelly Reichardt.

Her film is a glacier-paced Western in which a disparate group of settlers travelling through the Oregon desert in 1845 find themselves stranded in unforgiving conditions. Their guide, the titular Meek (played by a barely recognizable, wildly-bearded Bruce Greenwood) is a vain, agressive blowhard, who may or may not know where he is leading them. As they tramp across the terrain, tensions fray, suspicions develop, exhaustion sets in and the drama intensifies with the introduction of a captured Indian tribesman who may be their only route to safety.

Suffice it to say, we are not in thrill-a-minute territory here. Reichardt is interested in presenting the journey in all its boredom and frustration, and key to her modus operandi is the careful building of atmosphere through a precision-controlled technique; a long static shot of the wanderers followed immediately – disorientingly – by another one; a limited, earthy palette, ghostly campfire scenes (with no baked beans in sight) all augmented by a plangent, eerie score. The drama comes from the growing sense of unease within the group, and I found it highly reminiscent of the second half of Walter Hill’s exceptional and bizarrely underrated thriller 1981 Southern Comfort (better than Deliverance – there, I said it), in which a decimated group of National Guardsmen tentatively make their way through Cajun backwoods territory; neither native nor nature is looking out for them.

One of the truly refreshing qualities of Meek’s Cutoff is the absolute straightness with which it is played.  In an age of post-post-modern revisionism (I’m looking at you Joel and Ethan) it is fascinating to see such hardships evoked so earnestly and without so much as a nod or a wink. The rub is that this austerity doesn’t preclude humour; one scene, in which Reichardt’s static camera observes Michelle Williams taking an eternity to load a gun, parp off a pathetic warning shot, and then do it all again in real time, is a masterpiece of deadpan absurdity rooted in the realities of a desperate situation. In another moving sequence toward the film’s conclusion, a pair of exhausted characters share a hysterical laughing fit – the kind that happens when you’re so tired there’s nothing else for it.

Generally, the performances are strong. Will Patton, a classic “I know the face… what else has he been in?” actor is great as the rugged, forward-thinking Soloman Tetherow, and the ever-dependable Shirley Henderson is high-pitched and haunting as the pregnant, meek (EDITOR! Oh, I am the editor) Glory White. And Michelle Williams, of course, continues to demonstrate just how many miles better than the likes of Dawson, Pacey and Joey she always has been with her portrayal of Tetherow’s young wife Emily.

Despite its myriad strengths, Meek’s Cutoff is by no means perfect. As a by-product of its all-consuming vagueness, some of the characterization is ill-defined to say the least. It was difficult (for this reviewer, anyway) to discern that Dano and his hysterical partner were actually a separate family rather than a brother and sister. Furthermore, Dano, genuinely impressive in another Pioneer-piece (PTA’s There Will Be Blood), seems all at sea here, a boy miscast in a man’s role. He’s also sporting a maddeningly irritating wispy beard.

It is far from a bold statement to say that Meek’s Cutoff won’t be for everyone, not least those who require actual things to happen at regular intervals in their films.  To enjoy it is to surrender to its singular style. Absorbing, thoughtful and atmospheric, it is highly recommended. Oh, and those complaining about the ambiguous ending are missing the point – it’s academic. We all know how this story really ended. The fate of the Native American Indian and the end product of Westward expansion is well documented.

And Ashley has died of dysentery.