Written and Directed by Simon Blake
The subject of adolescent criminality is a hot button issue in Britain, playing on the fears generated by rampant urbanization and the generation gap. Cinema has addressed these fears in different ways; Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg riffed on the idea with Hot Fuzz and their friend Joe Cornish cast them as unlikely heroes in Attack the Block while Michael Caine‘s avenging war vet in Harry Brown takes it into the territory of elderly wish fulfilment. Writer/director Simon Blake uses the idea as the narrative and thematic force behind Still; a grim, well-acted yet slightly messy contemporary crime drama.
Set in and around North London, Still introduces Carver (Aidan Gillen) and his ex-wife Rachel (Amanda Mealing) putting flowers on the grave of their deceased teenaged son on the anniversary of his death. Carver has deeply rooted feelings of guilt about his son’s demise and when he is not trying to drown these feelings in booze he tries to assuage them by befriending a young boy named Jimmy (Joseph Duffy), whose brother was recently murdered. This relationship brings him into the crosshairs of a gang of young toughs led by Carl (Sonny Green) which instigates a series of escalating confrontations between the two until their feud culminates in a sad and disturbing stand-off.
What is most fascinating about Still is the inability of the adult male protagonists to accept the fact they are growing older and the world is leaving them behind. Carver and his best friend Ed (Jonathan Slinger) still drink and do drugs like they are in their 20s and look back at their memories of teenage-hood with fondness while lambasting the “youth of today” as nothing more than mere thugs. Yet, there is an unwillingness or inability, especially by Ed, to accept the nature of the world as something more complex than their rose-tinted view of the past or their almost Biblical understanding of total justice. This refusal to adapt and accept a changing world is what leads to Carver’s eventual downfall.
Unfortunately, the younger characters don’t get as much nuance, being generally cast as victims or criminals. There are slight shades of understanding toward the end of the film and the audience is positioned to view the tougher kids through the bias of the main characters but they still commit heinous crimes which make them nigh on irredeemable. It is hard to ascertain which side of the argument Blake falls down on, downplaying any political aspect in favour of a grim and violent depiction of the disintegration of man and society.
This uncertainty carries over to the film itself. There is messiness in the framework threatening to collapse the narrative altogether. The strongest scenes are the ones involving only two or three actors in a small space which demonstrates Blake’s theatre background. He is able to create a scene and allow his actors to embody their characters fully but when it comes to more cinematic elements such as montage, the film is left a little wanting. There are difficulties at times to determine a succession of events or the passage of time to the point where it becomes a little too unclear as to what has transpired which leads to the final scenes not feeling completely earned.
Thankfully, the power of Aidan Gillen’s performance just about keeps everything together. In fact, there are terrific performances all around but this is Gillen’s show and he pulls out all the stops. Gone is the sleazy smarm of his role as Littlefinger in Game of Thrones or his tough but inexperienced politician in The Wire. Here, Gillen draws the viewer into his internal world through the flick of his eyes or the turn of his head. Carver is a very tortured, conflicted human being and Gillen is able to engender sympathy even when he is doing the most harm. His performance not only holds the film together but makes for a clearer understanding of the themes at its core even when the script misses its beats.
Overall, Still is a hard watch. Its depictions of violence may be uncomfortable or even triggering for some and the film’s climax hinges on an adult man kidnapping and assaulting a young boy which is very disturbing. It is also hard to watch due to the director’s inexperience with cinematic language to the point where there are more questions about the mechanics of the story than about any of the themes or subtext. However, Gillen’s performance is the strongest reason to check this one out. It is easy to write off character actors as they are expected to be reliably talented folk who do great work in supporting roles. But when a character actor as intense as Gillen gets the chance to play the lead it is something to behold as his experience comes to bear on what is an essentially a fascinating character who has been unfortunately short changed by the film around him.