In Cinemas on the 8th of August, the week that marks the one year anniversary of the riots that ripped high streets across London and the UK to pieces, the first film to directly deal with the consequences of those riots is released. Offender the screen debut of Ron Scalpello is a brutal and uncompromising film that revisits the territory that only Alan Clarke’s Scum dared to tread.
On the 6th of August 2011 four friends use the riots as a smoke screen to raid a jewelers in North London. To cover their tracks they murder the shopkeeper and mercilessly beat a pregnant woman with the knowledge to put them away. This beating leads to a miscarriage and the break up of her relationship. Tommy (Joe Cole, no not that one, the good one. You know him, he was in skins), her fiancée, is not best pleased. For him this is the end of the line. The thing that brought focus, purpose and meaning to his life has been taken away, now his only purpose is vengeance.
Finding out they are being incarcerated for minor offenses Tommy arranges his own incarceration inside a young offenders facility. So begins his decent into a system that is ruled by fear, governed by violence and educates the petty crooks in the ways of career criminality.
Scalpello has created a film he hopes will speak directly to the inner city youth of Great Britain without falling into the same pitfalls that most UK independent cinema can’t seem to avoid. By infusing tough, urban realism with the energy and plot tropes of Hollywood crime flicks, he hopes Offender becomes a film that deals with the harsh realities of underprivileged life while remaining a film these kids will actually want to go and see. A film that has a presence in every multiplex in the country and not just a couple of midnight showings at the Curzon.
A film lives and dies by its audience and in the case of Offender that rule applies to it both financially and creatively. Offender is about youth, for youth and all of the film making decisions reflect this direction. From its brash and daring camera work to the energy of its mise en scène, Offender is a raging adolescent of a film and in this analogy both its triumphs and the flaws can be found.
Firstly it has a style that both sets it apart from the crowd whilst betraying its influences. The camera at times can seem high on itself, endlessly darting back and forth between the chaotic elements that make up the scenes, following characters and their perspectives as they rush their way from one violent situation to the next, brazenly charging head first into the fires sparked by a pyromaniac plot. It is both uncompromising in its dedication to doing things its own way whilst starrily gazing up at the heights of handheld camera classics like The Bourne Trilogy or City of God.
It’s also is bold with its narrative experimentation. Like Reservoir Dogs or The Usual Suspects, backstory is not frontloaded onto the film reel. Elements are dished out to you as they become important. This, coupled with the queasy camera work is a case of Offender trying to eat its cake and have it. Narratives that dart back and forth work best when the camera isn’t doing the same. One unruly element of filmmaking needs to be anchored down by other, stabler elements. While it is by no means a game breaking flaw it makes following the story a lot less simple than it needs to be.
The violence of the film is another area that Offender is proud to show off its own lack of sanitisation. In this film a beating is a beating no question. Punches don’t just end with confused young men shaking off knocks, instead skin is broken, eyes roll back into the head and blood vessels explode making the evidence of physical confrontation an unavoidable feature in a film that surrounds itself in adolescent aggression. The authenticity of what real violence does to the human body marks Offender’s stand against the desensitisation of violence in films that have no problem in its inclusion as a heroic act, but shy away from its real consequences.
But it isn’t just the violence in Offender that will make you watch the film through the gaps between your fingers. Scalpello has displayed a mastery of stretching tension to piano wire tautness, by utilising the natural claustrophobia and overcrowding of his setting, his prison is a barrel of nitro on a rock mountain road, always ready to explode at the first sign of ignition.
The mounting senses of dread make for some of the films most daring moments and in Offender’s case, who dares wins. The passage of time being signified by blood seeping onto a blanket, the exposure of the showers creating an unbearable sense of vulnerability and the stand out moment of the film where the only man interested in Tommy’s salvation unwittingly intensifies Tommy’s hatred towards him. A terrifying moment that turns the cliché of the moral compass on its head, built with only Scalpello’s direction and Joe Cole’s powerful performance.
The only problem with this is that is too dedicated to this aspect of the film. So concerned is it with building an atmosphere of intense stress , tough reality and brutal violence that Scalpello forgets to provide a relief to this tension. Film makers often fall into this trap, so desperate are they to create a mature experience they avoid anything that can be associated with immaturity like the plague. What they fail to realise is that this desperation is itself a sign of immaturity as human beings grow up to accept that balancing brevity with levity is what helps us cope with despair and loss.
Perhaps this was a conscious choice to keep the film in line with its protagonist. Joe Cole’s Tommy is a slow motion car crash of a human being, with his only reason to grow up and mature out of his reach, he wallows in the adolescent indulgence of violent revenge fantasy. You really don’t want to look at his snarling face as it twitches on the edge of sanity but it is so mesmerising he keeps you paralyzed in his gaze.
English Frank (real name Frank Cobban) impresses on his first outing as a truly terrifying (if at times overly broad and cartoonish) antagonist. But the ferocity he puts into his performance works because of the authenticity of his dialogue, makes him a man easily able to remind you of any thug you’ve passed walking around the streets of London.
Offender is a great debut film from a director still freeing himself from the shackles of other mediums. Its suffocating claustrophobia and seething aggression mark it out as one of the films of the year. But had it been open to a little more compromise, allowed itself to let go of that intensity, maybe say no a couple of ideas, the it could have been a film of the decade.