Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

When burglar alarm engineer Adam (Danny Dyer) installs a high-tech security system at the London flat of successful executive Alice (Gillian Anderson) she fulfils his wildest dreams (and those of a legion of X-Files fans) by seducing him on the spot.

She talks dirty then goes for a shower, he watches her undress on the webcam and before you can say "just press Reset if it goes haywire" she’s whisked him off to a corporate junket at a stately pile in the Shropshire countryside, near her childhood home. Her colleagues patronise him, they have sex in the bushes and it seems the film is set to be a romantic drama, with a hint of social satire, about the problems that arise when opposites attract.

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But they decide to return to town early and on the way home cut up a 4x4 filled with Very Bad Men. Alice’s car is chased and forced off the road. Then, in a scene of unrelenting brutality, Adam is given a savage beating that half-blinds him and Alice is raped.

The film then begins to resemble nothing so much as a feminist version of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. Adam feels unmanned by his failure to protect Alice, who is consumed by anger and frustration when the police investigation gets nowhere. So when a return to Shropshire, prompted by her father’s death, leads to a chance encounter with one of the attackers, it prompts her to take revenge. She drags Adam down to the family home, finds Dad’s old Army rifle and lays siege to her abuser’s farmhouse. Adam is initially horrified, but soon finds that he too is warming to the task…

Straightheads is gang members’ slang for anyone not involved in crime, and this feature debut by documentary veteran Dan Reed shines an unblinking light on two characters whose chance encounter with a horrific world they have never experienced before leaves physical and mental scars – and brings out their own capacity for violence.

After her acclaimed performance in the BBC drama Bleak House, it’s a fair bet that Gillian Anderson was offered plenty of other period drama roles, and no doubt the classier end of Hollywood came calling too. So kudos to her for first taking a supporting role in The Last King Of Scotland, then choosing a low-budget Britflick whose subject matter and tone will probably cause controversy and certainly not be to everybody’s taste.

Added to this is the fact that her character, Alice, is not that likeable. There are echoes of Agent Scully in this imperious alpha female with a little finger calloused from wrapping men round it, but the warmth and moral focus of her most famous creation are (initially, at least) totally absent. Picking up Adam seems more an act of power than love, and she makes no attempt to defend him as the party guests ridicule his gauche confusion and prole accent.

But the attack brings them closer together, and her determination to take him along on her vengeance trail becomes a test not just of their relationship, but of themselves as people. Anderson (Brit accent and manner faultless again) gives an intense portrayal of a woman torn between the desire to punish those who have inflicted the ultimate indignity and to retain the humanity that revenge wipes out.

Adam has to face the same choice and Danny Dyer’s performance is equally impressive; a genial, easily-led naif, whose chaotic lifestyle is disoriented even more by the seduction and the attack, his struggle to regain control over his life and restore his sense of masculinity leads to a character arc even more extreme – and disturbing – than Anderson’s.

His casting is refreshingly against type, too. After a fair share of Gangster No 1-style parts, this role allows him to demonstrate a much wider range. It could also be seen as the director’s rejection of the jokey, geezerish approach to violence typified by the Guy Ritchie School of filmmaking.

It’s a shame, therefore, that the climax of Adam and Alice’s vengeance becomes so extreme that it veers into black farce. Perhaps this is intentional, but it lessens the impact after a solidly tense build-up. And the film’s main points – sex and violence are both ways of exercising power; inflicting pain gets easier with practice – have, it has to be said, been made quite a few times before.

But as a thriller it’s tight and gripping enough and documentarian Reed shows he can work well with actors, giving Anderson and Dyer the space to create a convincing portrayal of a relationship brought into being by chance and sustained only by trauma.

Reviewed on: 15 Jan 2007
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A couple, brought together by a chance encounter, react to a horrific attack by plotting vengeance.
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Jennie Kermode ***

Director: Dan Reed

Writer: Dan Reed

Starring: Gillian Anderson, Danny Dyer, Ralph Brown, Kate Bunten, Antony Byrne, Anthony Calf, Francesca Fowler, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Adam Rayner, Steven Robertson, Ewan Stewart

Year: 2007

Runtime: 79 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


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