Unpicking class tension in the aftermath of the London riots, Simon Blake’s Still blends genres to create a strange yuppies-in-peril gangster-horror hybrid.
Hackney's Finestby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Unravelling in the grimy, graffiti-daubed streets of North London, Simon Blake’s Still offers a very British take on the yuppies-in-peril movies of yesteryear – an American tradition of fear that stretches all the way from John Schlesinger’s Pacific Heights to David Fincher’s Panic Room. And yet here, with the gangs of London pitted against an estranged couple in the throes of grief following the death of their son, it’s a strangely grungey affair – with our hero Tom, a promising photographer with an exhibition opening in a Hoxton gallery, living in a near-squat with makeshift furniture and wallpaper peeling off the walls. Not quite the genre’s usual young, urban arriviste. But with his world turned upside-down by a feral gang of underage thugs, it’s enough to put both reality and morality on trial.
It’s one year on from his son’s death in a hit-and-run accident and Tom Carver (Aidan Gillen) is visiting his son’s grave. He’s joined by his ex-wife Rachel (Amanda Mealing) who comes back to his flat for a stiff drink. On his way to the off-licence to pick up more tonic, Tom bumps quite literally into gang-leader Carl (Sonny Green) – a minor misunderstanding that puts Tom in the young man’s sights. Meanwhile, Tom’s new girlfriend Christina (Elodie Yung) arrives, making for an awkward first meeting with Rachel. And Tom’s journalist friend Ed (Jonathan Slinger) investigates the local stabbing of a young teenager – presumably perpetrated by a local gang of minors – an underage criminal underworld the police have little interest in tackling. Gradually, the gang turns nasty, as Tom is harassed, spat at and receives unwelcome “gifts” through his letterbox; and his willingness to stand up and be a man is put to the test.
Perhaps the last thing that British cinema needs is another film about gangs (with Wild Bill, My Brother The Devil, Hackney’s Finest and Snow In Paradise, to name but a few), so it’s to Simon Blake’s credit that Still looks at the issue through a less glamorous glass than those directors that follow in Guy Ritchie’s wake. Unfortunately, Still has nothing of the sensitivity of Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah or Céline Sciamma’s girl-gang movie Girlhood, offering instead an unsympathetic and thoroughly improbable depravity (albeit one which mirrors middle-class fears of “urban yoof”) which degenerates quickly from street altercation to harassment on an unspeakable scale.
With a nod to the London riots of 2011, it’s an unbelievable chain of events that demonises the gang beyond redemption, and all to the service of the plot – stretching the boundaries of belief, so that we can see how far our everyman hero needs to be pushed in order to become a man. (And for man, read vigilante killer.) This strange undercurrent of machismo is expressed in Tom’s reluctance to involve the police – a liberal laissez-faire attitude which is quickly perverted into cynical suspicion. He’s terrorised and brutalised because of the gang. But stoked on by his friend Ed’s lazy belief that the police won’t do anything, he decides to take the law into his own hands, bundling Carl into a van and putting him on trial in his living room.
The film’s clincher lies in the final-reel reveal that Tom’s son was in fact another member of Carl’s gang – a predictable, contrived twist that sententiously rams the point home that while the absent father could only see good in his son, Tom can only see the bad in Carl. A question of perspective that the film itself isn’t sensitive enough to pose, aside from some eleventh-hour whimpering from the minor on death row. And yet, even as it lurches with its motley score between saxophone-infused urban police thriller and grimy British horror, Simon Blake’s Still has its moments. His self-penned script is woefully deterministic, yet also contains some great dialogue. Aidan Gillen goes into unfettered overdrive, transforming himself into a diabolic imp, but there are also some good performances – particularly from a squirming Sonny Green. It’s uneven and strained, and even for a first-time director finding his voice and his feet, there’s a long way to go. Still.
Still is released on 8th May 2015 in the UK