The Big Ugly

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Big Ugly
"Much more complex than it appears on the surface, this is a film full of multi-layered characters powered by great performances, addressing familiar cinematic subjects with a voice of its own."

Did you know that in some years, as many as 4% of all films released in the UK have used the death or serious injury of a woman to drive the plot? At Eye For Film we're not big fans of that particular cliché, so approached this film with a degree of trepidation. It proved to be a pleasant surprise. Much more complex than it appears on the surface, this is a film full of multi-layered characters powered by great performances, addressing familiar cinematic subjects with a voice of its own.

The woman, on this occasion, is Fiona (Lenora Crichlow), whose skin colour immediately marks her out as vulnerable in the small West Virginia community where she's tagging along with boyfriend Neelyn (Vinnie Jones) whilst he acts as muscle for Malcolm McDowell's hard-bitten London gang boss Harris. Harris is looking to set up a dodgy oil deal with old pal Preston (Ron Perlman), a man of some authority in the region. But Preston has a wayward son, known only as Junior (Brandon Sklenar), whose reaction to his father's line of work has been to grow up assuming he can do whatever he wants. When that means spending the evening drinking with Fiona, who subsequently disappears, the stage is set for trouble.

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At the centre of it, naturally, is Neelyn, but whilst viewers might expect from the casting to see little more here than a thug trying to find justice with his fists, what we get is very different. This is a man caught between his loyalty o the woman he loves and to the boss who has been there for him throughout his career; a man, too, who knows how violence works and what it would mean to take action on somebody else's territory, never mind to harm the son of such a powerful man. Despite his professional skills he's also aware that he's not a young thing anymore, and early on we see how easily he can suffer in a fight. On top of this, he's impacted in a deeper and more complex way by what has happened to Fiona. This not only makes for a more interesting story, it also gives Jones room to deliver the best performance of his career.

This is not, however, a film about what's happening in the centre, with much more interesting events occurring on the periphery. The acting heavyweights here are McDowell and Perlman, and they're very well matched, their characters facing circumstances that position them as enemies though we get the sense that neither has ever had a better friend. Each embodies the sense of a full life lived and each is weighted down by the responsibility that comes with success.

There's a good deal here about honour and about the difference between criminality as business and psychopathy, though writer/director Scott Wiper doesn't labour the point. Junior doesn't get more screen time than he deserves. We know he's a monster and understand that Neelyn is thinking about more than simple vengeance when wanting to stop him, but it's also understood that men like him are two a penny even if - thankfully - most of them don't ave the opportunity to do damage on that scale. We see him behaving abusively with other characters too, and although the film takes on more subplot here than it has room to develop properly, there are no weak performances.

As a director, Wiper meanders from scene to scene, framing his shots tightly at key moments but otherwise delivering something more impressionistic that fits with Neelyn's disorientation. This is a strange country for him, on top of the confusion created by circumstance, and we see it that way, a menage of images that conjure up particular smells and tastes and an omnipresent heat. It's an interesting way to approach the genre and contributes to the sense that this is something closer to real experience. The characters are prisoners of fate but the film is more poignant because they know this isn't how things have to be.

Reviewed on: 29 Jul 2020
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Anglo-American relations go bad when London mob bosses invest in a West Virginia oil deal in hopes of laundering dirty money.

Director: Scott Wiper

Writer: Scott Wiper

Starring: Vinnie Jones, Ron Perlman, Nicholas Braun, Malcolm McDowell, Elyse Levesque, Joelle Carter

Year: 2020

Runtime: 106 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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