The Wolfe brothers’ début is a startling, troubling and fairly nasty film. Refreshingly nasty, in fact: it’s fantastically taut, and although there are a few weakly written spots and some not-so-believable character decisions, it’s difficult not to be gripped throughout. Synopsis: a jaded British Pakistani teenager named Laila has eloped with her boyfriend, Aaron, to a caravan on the Yorkshire Moors. They eke out a skimpy but loving coupled existence, until Laila’s father dispatches two small groups to collect her. Judging by the emotionless, ruthless and decorum-less nature of the group members, they seem a lot more like bounty hunters; and judging by the terrified reactions of Laila and Aaron when they find out they’re being pursued, these bounty hunters aren’t just playing hide-and-seek.
Since the plot is elemental, the film’s main strengths are tensile and atmospheric. The bounty hunters are as relentless as the lovers are guileless, and as with the best thrillers, we’re on the edge of our seats because we care about the characters, and we sense that much is at stake. When Laila whimpers “He’ll kill me”, we feel her father Tariq might actually want her dead. The two leads are relative unknowns: Sameena Jabeen Ahmed plays the wary, weary Laila, contributing a mature, compelling, award-winning performance, while Conor McCarron – having shed a lot of weight since his scarily real performance in Peter Mullan’s 2010 film NEDs – plays Laila’s Scottish paramour.
There are several reasons we feel that much is at stake. The acting is convincing; the characters are realistic, and the bounty hunters realistically vile. But a third reason is that the Wolfe brothers play on prejudices. Pakistani honour killings happen in their dozens every year in Britain, and so when we see aggressive Pakistani men pursuing a defenceless Pakistani girl, we assume that their intent is lethal. Fear of the ‘unknown’ element of British Pakistani culture is also explored, through the Asian bounty hunters speaking a bamboozling mixture of English and Arabic. At times, the exploitation of this prejudice does feel a little gratuitous; but the complexity of two of the characters – Tariq and his son, Laila’s brother Zaheer – make the film painful to watch. These aren’t cold-blooded killers, but they may be taking the notion of ‘family man’ a little too far. They inhabit a world in which Emma Watson’s UN Speech would be considered irrelevant at best, dangerous at worst.
Robbie Ryan’s cinematography is superb throughout: the dusky images and crepuscular shots of the Yorkshire Moors bring to mind Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights, on which Ryan did a great job. He also manages to capture the seedy nature of nocturnal suburban hinterlands, replete with garish neon signs and seedy nightclubs.
The audience is not condescended to. There is little (if any) clear exposition, and there’s no fixed point at which we realise that the two lovers are being hunted by the two groups: the men of Laila’s family, and two grimy, volatile Caucasians, each group ensconced in its own menacingly nondescript car. The actors don’t bother making their accents too comprehensible to Londoners or foreigners, and so many of us have to put in a little effort to enter their world – which only makes leaving their world harder.
In the main, the film seems to be a study in loneliness and desperation. Laila feels isolated by her family, and so elopes with Aaron for a short-lived romance in a caravan on the Yorkshire Moors, while the off-screen departure of Laila’s mother from the family adds a much-needed (and superbly handled) dimension to the patriarch’s desperation about his daughter, now the only woman in the family. Meanwhile, Aaron and his mother don’t live together, his father’s nowhere to be seen, and Gary Lewis’s character – one of the bounty hunters – has drug and family problems.
The film’s deeply ambiguous ending is profoundly disturbing, and should keep audiences debating for a long time over whether or not it’s gratuitous. It may be gratuitous, but it is also terrifyingly real, and therein lies the film’s formidable clout.