New Town Killers Review
Jameson’s 9th Belfast Film Festival review
Introducing the film at the Belfast Film Festival, director Richard Jobson emphasised that there was a serious social statement being made in his latest film about two parts of society that remain invisible to most people, the differences between them going beyond class distinction, but how the impact that their actions have on modern life is nonetheless profound. It’s as well he mentioned this and you’d do well to keep it in mind as you watch New Town Killers, because otherwise you might mistake it for a rather more pedestrian and run-of-the-mill chase thriller.
Essentially however, Jobson isn’t necessarily wrong, either in the choice of topic or in the rather more conventional cinematic manner that he presents it in, one very different from the social realist treatment that you might expect from this subject and indeed in marked contrast to the poetic stylisations of some of the director’s previous work. Dealing with the practices of the financial sector in a film is however a dry subject, so Jobson’s approach of drawing from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment detective novel influenced approach is certainly acceptable as a model of how to handle the exploration the psychological make-up of the mentality that drives one section of the community to exploit and take advantage of the other through some kind of god-given right. It’s a topical subject that even coincides nicely with the current vilification of the banking sector in the UK and around the world, but unfortunately Jobson’s approach, relying much too heavily on genre chase-movie cat-and-mouse conventions, tends to treat the subject just as hysterically as the tabloids.
The chase movie is not a particular sophisticated genre to work with, relying entirely as it does on providing plenty of thrills and spills, and there is certainly enough of that in New Town Killers. The underlying reasons behind the chase are as simple and as contrived as they come. Attempting to help out his sister Alice (Liz White) who is seriously in debt and being leaned on heavily by her creditors, Sean Macdonald (James Anthony Pearson), a young man living in a rundown housing estate, agrees to take part in a game organised by two wealthy men (Dougray Scott and Alastair Mackenzie) with a taste for the hunt. In exchange for the money that will wipe out his sister’s debts, all Sean has to do is not get caught by 9:00am the next morning.
Jobson handles the conventions of the genre well in New Town Killers, taking advantage of the dark gothic alleys, twisting stairwells and cobblestoned streets of the film’s Edinburgh location shooting, and doing a more than credible job with only four weeks of shooting in making it into a tense and hard-hitting thriller, one that can take sudden twists and turns and provide shocks at the ruthlessness of Sean’s pursuers. He does perhaps too good a job however, fully entering into the spirit of the genre and clearly enjoying the opportunity it affords to explore a new cinematic language, but in the process losing a lot of the nuance that a more considered characterisation outside of the cat-and-mouse stereotypes might bring. I don’t doubt for a second that the damage the financial institutions enact upon vulnerable sections of the community is in reality on an even vaster and more pernicious scale than any of the violence enacted against individuals here, but rather like the Coen Bros’ No Country For Old Men, placing one’s trust in a cold-blooded, ruthless, stalking killer to embody that concept can work contrary to the seriousness and degree of nuance that the subject deserves.
There are other weaknesses in the film that a more disciplined approach should have avoided. I found myself mentally trying to cut an excruciatingly misjudged scene of two young children playing with a gun that presumably only made the final edit because the director couldn’t cut a scene featuring his daughter. The younger members of the cast also are much less convincing than the powerhouse performance of Dougray Scott, or perhaps they are just less well-written. The director does however succeed in putting across some of the challenges these underprivileged sections of the community face on a daily basis, the places they live, the locations they haunt and the debts they are encouraged to incur in living up to a lifestyle beyond their means. And although Jobson’s fondness for the cinematic qualities of the film’s Edinburgh locations is understandable and somewhat over-emphasised with impeccable lighting on glistening granite and cobblestones, he does find in the city the contrasts he is looking for between the two worlds of those invisible sections of the community that most citizens are unaware of and may never come into contact with, but which between them create a dynamic that can be seen for the impact it has on our society today.