It's always a pleasure when a new film arrives from Irish filmmaker Jason Figgis. He first came to our attention here at SGM a few short years ago, when his superb post-apocalyptic chiller CHILDREN OF A DARKER DAWN landed for review. Figgis immediately stood out as one of the most literate, considered and conscientious minds working within the contemporary indie horror scene.
That last statement was backed up ably by his next feature, the haunting and lyrical THE ECSTASY OF ISABEL MANN. Again, the director's keen eye for beautiful landscapes, his unconventional approach to horror tropes and his uncanny knack for eliciting remarkable performances from young casts, instantly stood out.
His 2015 film, DON'T YOU RECOGNISE ME?, could've easily degenerated into simple torture-porn in a lesser filmmaker's hands. Figgis didn't skimp on the violence (even enjoying a cameo as the film's most dangerous character) but elevated the story, again assisted by a cast of sterling performances, into an unforgettable meditation on the far-reaching effects of grief. It's no surprise that the film went on to win acclaim upon its premiere at the Starburst International Film Festival, where actor Dan Travers picked up a well-deserved award for his thespian efforts.
Since then, Figgis has taken up invites to direct a few horror anthology segments, all of which are sure to be essential viewing once they're released. In the meantime, his latest triumph is the 48-minute steamroller that is FAMILY.
Opening to the startling sight of a man, sat tied to a chair in the centre of an otherwise barren warehouse, being savagely beaten and tortured, at first it seems like Figgis has finally let those torture-porn urges get the better of him. This is seriously gruesome stuff, the sound design accentuating each brutal blow to the unfortunate's head.
But, fear not, a story does soon emerge. We soon realise that the shocking opening scene serve a purpose: it introduces us to middle-aged Joe (Stuart Dunne) who's the boss of a gang of small-time criminals. We learn two things from this scene: he doesn't pull any punches (literally) when it comes to doling out punishments, and his underling Dillon (producer Matthew Toman) is quite fascinated by the violence he observes his boss dishing out.
So much so that Dillon decides to take it upon himself to abduct, torture and kill local lad Steo (Jason Sherlock) when the latter loses a batches of Joe's cocaine.
Alas, Steo was dating Sal (Lena-Marie Fitzgerald), the aforementioned crime boss Joe's daughter, and the lad's death triggers a chain of events that will leave virtually no-one unscarred.
For a start, there's Steo's absent sister Dee (Lynn Rafferty) who returns from three years in Munich upon learning of his murder. Her return clearly has everyone local on edge, but she doesn't care: she only has vengeance in mind.
Then there's Joe, who has promised Sal that he'll find Steo's killer and make them pay.
Meanwhile, Joe Jr (Adam Tyrrell) struggles to share sibling Sal's grief for "scumbag" Steo; he has aspirations of avoiding following in his father's footsteps and going to college instead.
All of the above are inevitably destined to meet before the end of FAMILY's slim running time. Of course, not all will survive these encounters...
Despite its short length, FAMILY is a well-formed and carefully paced revenge yarn. It takes time to visually comment on the grimy environs in which these people go about their business: disused warehouses, derelict estates, drab flats etc. For all concerned, you get the impression that they are small-time folk whose lives are each an uphill struggle. Even the fruits of Joe's ill-gotten labours seem relatively modest.
As with DON'T YOU RECOGNISE ME?, the plot is driven by a thirst for vengeance but also takes in themes such as family, loyalty, loss and grief. The latter is delivered in spades: though there are moments of sardonic humour lacing the script throughout, it's fair to say that virtually every conversation - and there are some agreeably lengthy ones - is an outpouring of misery.
This could make the tone of FAMILY oppressive, were it not for its confident aesthetic approach. Adroit editing, slick camerawork and beautiful photography (a paradox, given the often ugly imagery) conspire with a highly atmospheric score to lift the film out of its Alan Clarke doldrums and onto a more, dare I say it, palatably "cinematic" level.
If anything, I do wish the film had been developed into feature-length. Steo's background isn't explored, and his relationship with Sal is only glimpsed at via brief flashbacks, so it's difficult to share in her sense of loss. And the final act, though dramatically gripping and ending on a satisfyingly ambiguous note, could've been enhanced upon - there were certainly more peripheral characters that could've been fleshed out and even killed. There's a definite sense of unfinished business...
Still, what exists is a highly satisfying, engrossing drama of the darkest order, replete with horror movie levels of violence and gore. It's Jason Figgis at his most brutal, and yet it retains all the qualities of his earlier works: superb performances, technical brilliance, and a huge heart at the centre of its screenplay.
FAMILY is currently being prepared for possible inclusion on Amazon Prime and Google Play, and will most likely feature as an extra on the DVD release of Figgis's forthcoming TORMENT.
However you see it, FAMILY comes recommended.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Directed by Jason Figgis|