Starting great but ending merely good, this British thriller full of deadpan laughs is sexy, nasty and features two great actors, Tim Roth and Peter Mullan. It even boasts a starmaking performance by Jack O’Connell as The Liability.
The genre is announced before the opening credits, as a man in a car parked somewhere bleak but lit with the rainbow palette of an acolyte of Christopher Doyle is gruesomely garrotted from the rear passenger seat by someone we never see.
Except it isn’t. The genre we thought it was, I mean. Cut to Adam (Jack O’Connell) a total dipstick who has borrowed his mum’s boyfriend’s C Class Mercedes and is razzing it up and down the road, until he inevitably prangs it, which causes mum’s boyfriend Peter to get very angry with him indeed. Since Mum’s boyfriend is played by Peter Mullan, “very angry” is only scratching the surface of his rage – there is much worse to come.
It’s somewhere around here that we’re again re-introduced to the thriller plot that is going to be the undoing of this otherwise rather fabulous little film – Peter appears to be involved in sex trafficking. Possibly. Who knows? He seems the type.
Cut to the next day and Adam is now driving Roy (Tim Roth), a blank-faced hitman, up the motorway to a job somewhere, this being part of Adam’s payback for the shitload of damage he’s done to Peter’s car. At this point John Wrathall’s screenplay poses a question – is our hitman just a hitman, or is he also a notorious serial killer called the Handyman, news of whose bloody progress is is being delivered by car radio bulletins and shots of newspaper headlines? Why the film is asking this question I really don’t know. For the purposes of jeopardy isn’t a naive kid sitting in a car with a hitman enough already?
But as Adam and Roy motor up the country, the film starts to rev up too, Roy’s deadpan responses to Adam’s incessant witless drivelling making for beautiful double-act comedy in scene after scene of funny back and forth. “Gizzago” says Adam at one point, wanting to get in on this hitman lark. “Gizzago?” replies Roy, incredulously. Well it made me laugh.
At somewhere around this point, as Adam and Roy pause in the woods to kill someone, an innocent hiker, Talulah Riley, wanders onto the scene and the film starts to wander off it. It’s not her fault. Riley is there to deliver sex by the metric tonne, which she does. But she also signals the full arrival of Plot B (sex trafficking), which seems as unnecessary to the film as the whole hitman-as-Handyman business.
On the upside this is a film about archetypes that locks straight in, and does it unapologetically. The hitman, the liability, the liability’s unbelievably violent stepfather, his slutty mother, the sexy girl – that’s just about everyone who’s in this low-budget affair.
When it’s working at its best The Liability is at its most character-driven. The cast really helps. When you hire people like Mullan or Roth you expect the sort of acting you can stand a spoon up in. 22-year-old O’Connell more than holds his own against this lot and that must mark him out as something special.
But the film is merely good not great. Sadly the whole back end, Riley vengeful in the sex-trafficking storyline, sees the character-driven thrust abandoned. An almost elemental plot centring on an odd-couple double-act – the totally professional hitman and the waste-of-space sidekick – has been junked in favour of a thriller finish.
Mind you, this finale in a waterworks pumphouse does at least allow cinematographer James Friend to get his Christopher Doyle gels back out again, the ones he was using in the car park before the opening credits. So the film ends as it began – looking great, gnarly, thrillerish. But it’s the film sandwiched in between these bookends that is the one to watch.
© Steve Morrissey 2013