By Thomas Puhr.

The latest poster for Philip Barantini’s Villain (2020) smacks of an effort to reach as broad an audience as possible. Adorned by flames and sporting a stylish suit, star Craig Fairbrass grimaces at something, perhaps his next victim, offscreen. “FURY UNLEASHED,” the tagline announces, prepping viewers for some pure popcorn escapism. The final product (bleak, fatalistic, and devoid of any blockbuster-level explosions) differs vastly from the story this odd marketing campaign suggests. Though Barantini doesn’t shy away from violence and gore, the film is more of a character study: a deeply problematic one, sure, but I’ll take that over having to sit through another Taken or Transporter knockoff any day.

An obvious, but important, question drives the narrative: Who is the titular villain? The opening scenes point to Roy Garrett (Robert Glenister), a gangster turning the screws on London pub owner Sean (co-writer George Russo), who owes Roy a small fortune in stolen drug money. When Sean’s older brother, Eddie (Fairbrass), returns from a 10-year stint in prison and learns about Sean’s troubles, we know what to expect. Indeed, Barantini satisfies to some extent the bloodlust of those eagerly awaiting Guy Ritchie’s next offering; not long after arriving at the pub, Eddie bashes two small-time thugs with a hammer for refusing to pay their tab.

But then the film pivots, focusing on Eddie’s (seemingly) earnest attempts to live a law-abiding life. He remodels the floundering pub, grapples with Sean’s drug addiction, and tries to rekindle something of a relationship with Chloe (Izuka Hoyle), his estranged daughter. Hoyle’s performance is a standout; although her character doesn’t get the screen time she deserves (I’d love to see a story with her as the central character), her interactions with Eddie muster some genuine pathos. We can see the hurt on her face, the hesitance to let Eddie meet her infant son, the fear that he will abandon her again. These scenes, easily the film’s strongest, call to mind Mickey Rourke and Evan Rachel Wood’s relationship in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler (2008).

The film’s genre-driven side is less successful, largely because of Eddie’s portrayal. To return to the aforementioned question regarding the title, it becomes clear that Eddie may be the true villain. In a clever subversion of a narrative device all too familiar to crime fans (that of the retired gangster tragically pulled back into his old life, against his will), Villain presents us with someone eager, despite initial efforts to fly straight, to resume his old ways. During a pivotal moment, instead of handing the pub over to Roy and cutting his losses, Eddie gives in to his anger and tries to fight his way out of Sean’s mess. When asked why he couldn’t just let it go, his resigned response, “Life won’t let me,” reveals an interesting facet of his character: despite his reckless return to a life of crime, he has convinced himself (and is attempting to convince others, especially his daughter) that he “tried” to be good but was left with no choice, essentially washing his hands of all responsibility.

This is all good stuff (I like the little detail of Eddie calmly sipping a cup of coffee the morning after dismembering one of his victims), and it indicates that Barantini and company are exposing their protagonist’s psychotic, hypocritical nature. However, their indulgence in cheap thrills suggests they’re not as critical of their protagonist as one might think (or hope). When Eddie beats up Chloe’s abusive boyfriend, for example, we’re clearly meant to root for him and celebrate the young thug’s comeuppance. But the film can’t have it both ways, showing Eddie as the monster he is but expecting viewers to cheer him on as he pummels his victims. It tries to be two very different movies (tragic character study and stylish crime thriller) and, in so doing, fails as both. That’s not to say this genre mashup can’t be done (Sexy Beast [2000] and Le Samouraï [1967] being two obvious exemplars), but Villain has neither the nuance nor visual panache to pull off this delicate balancing act.

Villain is a film at war with itself, struggling to satisfy two different audiences simultaneously. An extended sequence in which Eddie considers robbing an antique store to pay off Sean’s debts embodies this conflict. When he removes his ski mask at the last minute and decides not to go through with it, one thinks the writers have self-consciously sidestepped the requisite “heist-gone-wrong” subplot. It’s almost comical when, some scenes later, he changes his mind and robs the store. Indications that the narrative just might take things in an unexpected direction are almost always undermined. What one hand giveth, the other taketh away.  

Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy BeastBirth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.

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