For all the spiritual cinema of people like Tarkovsky, Dreyer or Bresson, something lurks just under the surface of the film going public that wants hard sex and raw meat. When a film taps into this hunger in the viewer it can be a powerful experience that reminds us that we are still so close to our inner beast. This reminder is important in a medium that is currently populated with trends that want to make us feel more secure and that succeed in excusing our bestial selves. We live in a time when torture and assassination are justified as a means to an end by the cowboys in hats of all kinds of colours. More importantly, we live in a time where the media is constantly re-framing these experiences as the collateral damage to the consumer society we are lucky enough to enjoy. This was the whole point of Michael Haneke's Hidden last year, and if you listen to the writer director of Straightheads, Dan Reed, this is what he was trying to say in his debut. After years of documentaries from the world's trouble spots, Reed wanted to shake his audience by pointing to the depths we will go to to protect what we have.
Straightheads is a modern day rape revenge tale that is more Straw Dogs than Kill Bill in its desire to be dramatic rather than exploitative. Alice, a well to do City worker, takes the man who installs her CCTV, Adam, to a party at her boss's country house. After a quick conjugation in the woods, the two of them make their way back on the country roads only to first piss off a Land Rover full of ex-army types before then hitting a deer with the car. When the Land Rover catches them up, he gets severely beaten up and she gets raped. Weeks later, Alice is still with Adam when she travels back to the country because of her father's death. Once there, she sees one of the men and a desire for revenge obsesses her. Adam, who has lost an eye, joins her and is at first shocked by her bloodlust, but soon he discovers that he needs vengeance too. Will the couple get their pound of flesh or is everything less clear than they believe?
Clearly, Reed's film has lofty aspirations but, although the concept and intention may be sound, the tools at his disposal are not up to the task he sets himself. This isn't to say that the film's failings are down to bad support from the technicians around him, in fact it should be said that in terms of framing, scoring, and look this is an accomplished movie. Still the film fails to achieve its goal of providing insight into our obscured barbarity because the movie fails to capture a believeable humanity in the centre of its cast and fails to fit together as a causal chain of drama. The principal reason for this, to my mind, is the fact that the director serves the performances of his main cast rather than them serving the project of the film. Both Danny Dyer and Gillian Anderson are trying very hard in their roles but the people they create are not real enough to either understand or sympathise with, and the choices they make as actors seem to be motivated more by being quirky and noticed than being true to any coherent sense of vision. Their characters blunder from one scene to the next in search of another shot that will make the film seem meaningful but without a sense of purpose that rings true to them. Anderson's characters' rape seems to have merely made her more sullen rather than had any broader impact - her portrayal lacks knowing detail, insight or a sense of empathy. Her character is described merely through the assumptions of how someone would react if these things happened to her and consequently becomes a set of appropriate pixels rather than a tool of meaning. To be fair, she is given some pretty steep tasks to complete here as she is asked to find her male lead irresistible, and to get over rape sufficiently quickly enough to be shagging again within a few weeks, so the lack of ringing truth in her work is understandable. Particularly understandable when you consider that her amour here is a bong hitting, IT bloke, with the impulse control of a randy cocker spaniel.
I would be remiss if I pretended that Danny Dyer is an actor that I think has great potential. British directors seem to favour the man for roles where he plays a common joe or a piece of rough, and here he is cast as the latter. His leary IT lad is initially a chancer who is picked up by Anderson's Alice after fitting her security system and who is beaten up on their first date after a quick one in the woods. After this beating up, he loyally sticks with Alice for the simple joy of her surround sound system, and he finds himself roped in again to be part of a vengeance that is hers but leases something uncontrollable in him. He gives no hint or inkling of why his character would hang around after such a car crash of an experience, we don't know if he is in love or scared that no one else will want him - he merely seems to be squatting in Alice's existence. His performance is full of cheeky cockney imitations of De Niro or Pacino from their heyday - he unsuccessfully jerks off, Taxi Driver like, in front of the mirror - but the problem is that his acting is neither convincing or good enough, and he weighs down any scene with his macho inarticulacy. In British film this phenomenon of macho non-acting can be traced directly to the curse of Vinnie Jones in that machismo can sometimes pass for thespian prowess, but Dyer lacks knowledge of his limits and blusters regardless of the need in whatever scene he is in. Perhaps a more experienced director would have reigned him in, or, even better, cast him in a different role.
Straightheads is not a bad film, it is merely unconvincing and uninvolving. The acting and lack of a coherent tone may suggest that Dan Reed does not cut the mustard, but this is a first film and one that outside of those factors has a lot to celebrate. Reed's intentions were at least honourable even if his execution was less than accomplished.
The main feature is presented anamorphically at the same ratio as the cinema release. The transfer is sharp and handles colour well but the detail in the image is less impressive with some scenes suffering from a very speckly approach to solid colours such as the table in the picture above. I suppose in a relatively low budget film like this it is a little excessive to expect perfect video quality and this criticism is a mild one in a very good visual presentation. Soundwise the film comes with a strong stereo track which has been recorded well with the dialogue, effects and excellent soundtrack music balanced so that none of the three elements drowns out another. There is no hint of distortions or source damage, and, although it is surprising that no surround mix is available, the stereo track is both punchy and atmospheric.
It's always a bit strange reviewing a commentary on a film that you didn't enjoy greatly, and especially so with this director and stars triple header. Of the participants, the director is most clear and interesting about the film although his slavish praise of Dyer makes you fear for his everlasting soul. Anderson is unfamiliar with the process of a commentary and basically comes over as maternal to Reed and a little flaky in her remarks, and Dyer seems, unsurprisngly, as a bit of rough and rather like he is being interviewed by John Motson at the end of an arduous 90 minutes of premiership action - "I have to give it a 150%"(Dyer on sex scenes). Their commentary extends over to the deleted scenes which include:
- Longer introduction of Alice
- Post coital conversation after the party
- Alice's post rape misery
- Birthday cake sequence
- Longer scene hunting in the woods
- Longer webcam setup in the rapist's house
- Stalking the rapist's daughter
- Longer flashback to the Land Rover including coke sniffing
I would like to say that there are hidden nuggets here which would have improved this relatively short film, but actually there's a good reason why these scenes were cut and some of them are excerable such as the CGI rape scene that appears on top of the birthday cake and Dyer's stalking which comes off a little Charlie Drake in terms of unintentional comedy. The commentary on the latter scene is funny with Anderson giggling at Dyer's work and being reminded by Reed that "this is not supposed to be a comedy".
Along with a trailer and a short unnarrated behind the scenes montage, cast and director interviews complete the extra features. The behind the scenes footage is seven minutes of watching the filming of scenes at the party, the office and in the woods. The interviews last around 24 minutes with Reed seeming a little pretentious - he describes his two leads' bonk in the woods as a "consummation of desire". Anderson talks about preparing for the physical side of the role despite her advancing years, and Dyer does his cockney geezer bit again with all the charm that I have come to expect of him.
Not a great film, but I am happy that Film Council dough is going on films that want to make the viewer think rather than romantic comedies from Richard Curtis wannabes. Dan Reed may be more disciplined with his cast or writing next time out and I think we should reserve judgement on him till then. The presentation of the film here is very sound with plenty of extras for fans to get stuck into, but I think few new buyers will be impressed by the main feature.