Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Every year sees the production of dozens of thrillers trying to do what this one does. Jackdaw leaves them in the dust."

A hybrid gangster film and deep rooted family drama played out across the course of two days, Jamie Childs’ Jackdaw opens with the full force of the North Sea and, at its conclusion, finds the same power in an actor’s face. It’s a gritty thriller with great performances, some lively comic touches and a sense of conviction which will keep your attention fixed on the screen throughout.

The sea – specifically, a buoy near a wind farm, whose thunderous noise provides an eerie backdrop – is where we first see Jack Dawson (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) in a yellow canoe, forcing his way through angry waves. When he reaches the appointed spot he dives, retrieves a package, but on getting back to the surface he find himself being pursued by two figures on jetskis. A dangerous chase follows which doesn’t let up when he’s back on the mainland and on the motocross bike which once made him a champion. It’s an intense opening, but the stakes get higher when Jack finally makes it home only to discover that his brother Simon, for whose sake he had taken on the job in the first place, is missing, apparently abducted.

Simon has Down syndrome and Jack is his carer, but their story is not a straightforward one. We soon learn that their mother is dead, much missed by everyone in the community; Jack has a broken relationship with his father and has few friends, having abruptly abandoned everyone who cared for him to join the army, from which he has only just returned. His instinct is to attribute Simon’s disappearance to local criminal kingpin Silas, who sent him on the North Sea job and seems to have double crossed him on payment, but the truth may be more complicated. As he goes looking for his brother, there are nasty hints that other people are looking for him, and although he still has allies in the underworld, the trouble he left behind is still lying in wait.

This simple formula relies on strong direction and finely tuned performances to make it work. It doesn’t fall short. There’s great supporting work from Jenna Coleman, Rory McCann, Vivienne Acheampong and, most notably, Thomas Turgoose, who brings much-needed heart. For his part, Jackson-Cohen spends much of his time in motorcycle leathers and helmet, distanced from others even though he’s at the centre of the story, but when his moment comes, he proves as capable as any of them. Jack’s vulnerability is all the more striking because of the toughness we’ve already seen from him.

The dialogue is a little hokey in places. Coleman gets some of the weakest lines, as a former girlfriend dispensing wisdom, but she succeeds in making them sound natural. McCann makes great use of his ability to switch registers in a heartbeat, keeping viewers on edge. Meanwhile, the noirish locations contribute to the sense that we are out on the edge of society where nothing can be taken for granted.

Childs, who will probably be best known to viewers for his work on the His Dark Materials TV series, really knows how to handle the action, delivering one thrilling sequence after another. He paces it well, giving us time to catch our breath and connect with other aspects of the story before picking up again, but there is never really an opportunity to relax. Furthermore, whilst it’s traditional for tales like this to overlook the need for sleep, we see Jack getting more and more exhausted over time, with his decision-making ability and endurance suffering as a result. This in itself contributes to the tension as the story spirals towards a seemingly inescapable confrontation which he’s less and less capable of dealing with.

Every year sees the production of dozens of thrillers trying to do what this one does. Jackdaw leaves them in the dust. It went down a storm on its première at Fantastic Fest 2023, and it’s destined to win a lot of fans elsewhere.

Reviewed on: 24 Sep 2023
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A former motocross champion and army veteran is now caring for his younger brother. Broke, he agrees to do an open water pick up of a mysterious illegal package in the North Sea.

Director: Jamie Childs

Writer: Jamie Childs

Starring: Jenna Coleman, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Rory McCann, Thomas Turgoose, Vivienne Acheampong

Year: 2023

Runtime: 97 minutes

Country: UK


Fantastic 2023

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