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December 2009


cast: Wayne Virgo, Marc Laurent, Alice Payne, Tom Bott, and Garry Summers

director: Simon Pearce

86 minutes (18) 2009
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
TLA DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont


If there is one word that characterises most gay indie cinema it is 'aspirational'. Gay indie films such as Mulligans, and The DL Chronicles, tend to feature wealthy middle-class people with idyllic lives. The dilemmas these smug and wealthy people tend to face are simplistic and what choices they make are invariably respected by their supportive and nurturing families. In other words, they are fantasies: softcore pornography that flatters its audience into believing that it is watching an actual drama rather than a bunch of guys with six packs taking their shirts off. Simon Pearce's Shank is undeniably an attempt to move the gay indie genre on from such fatuous and simple-minded fare. Unfortunately, while it produces a lot of smoke, there is very little actual fire to be seen.

Cal (Wayne Virgo) is a Burberry-wearing, happy-slapping, thug from the mean streets of Bristol. He is also secretly gay and filled with self-loathing. At the beginning of the film he picks up an older guy from the internet, drives him to a wood, gets the older guy to fuck him and then smashes his face in with a well-placed head-butt. He then goes home to have a wank over the footage he recorded on his mobile phone and is nearly caught by his friends Jonno (Tom Bott), and Nessa (Alice Payne). The gang forms something of a sexual triangle with Cal at the tip. Nessa and Jonno are shagging but both clearly desire Cal: Nessa expresses this by crudely lunging for his cock but Jonno expresses his desires in much more guarded ways such as offering to give Cal blowback while the pair are sitting with their shirts off, sharing a joint.

Cal clearly feels some affection for Jonno but he is terrified of being thought gay and both boys live in fear of Nessa's explosively violent temper. All of this self-delusion and repressed sexual energy comes to the boil when Jonno and Nessa decide to beat up a flamboyantly camp French exchange student named Olivier (Marc Laurent). Unexpectedly, Cal decides to stop the fight and then sets about making sure that Olivier gets home safely and is not overly distressed. Nessa and Jonno smell a rat and break into Cal's flat, uncovering the footage of Cal getting fucked. Terrified of going home, Cal moves in with Olivier and they become a couple. Olivier even starts dressing Cal and suggesting that the scally return home to France with him. This freaks Cal out and allows Jonno and Nessa to kidnap the student, forcing Cal to confront his old friends, his past and his desires for the future.

Let us begin with the problems. Firstly, the central love affair is completely unbelievable. Cal's early sexual encounters tend to involve him getting fucked by big beefy men but we are supposed to believe that he would then choose to alienate himself from his friends because he falls for a lisping pink-clad Frenchman. Indeed, while it is nice to see an effeminate character in a gay indie film who is not a comic foil, the dynamics of Cal and Olivier's relationship are reminiscent of a modern-day fairy tale like Pretty Woman (1990), and feel intensely out of place in a film that is clearly aiming for intense and gritty psychological realism. There is nothing gritty about a playful montage in which people try on different coloured scarves.

Secondly, the acting is frequently so bad that it is actively distracting. Laurent's Olivier is supposed to be a combination of light-hearted naivety and worldly sophistication but Laurent struggles to communicate a contradiction in a language that is clearly not his own. The result is a mess of weakly delivered lines and a series of gazes that are supposed to be smouldering but in reality simply make it look as though Laurent is trying to kill Virgo using only the power of his mind. Payne's Nessa is also problematic as, despite undeniably looking the part, Payne struggles to summon up the requisite combination of sexual magnetism and barely contained savagery. The script clearly demanded that Nessa be an intense, terrifying and charismatic figure but Payne makes her resemble little more than a spoiled brat.

Thirdly, the ending is a complete shuttle crash featuring not only bizarre religious imagery (Cal being cleansed of his sin) but also a completely unnecessary rape scene and an utterly undeserved and undercooked sequence in which Cal reduces Nessa to tears by confronting her with some inane truth. Rather than being supported by the arcs of the characters, these various denouements seem to come out of nowhere, providing no dramatic satisfaction they feel cheap, exploitative and pretentious.

Shank's main problem is impatience. Had Olivier been more than a lisping stereotype then Cal's attraction might have made more sense. Had the tensions between Cal, Nessa, and Jonno been made more explicit then the film's brutal finale might have provided some degree of dramatic closure. Had Cal's conflicting emotions about the world he inhabits been more than hinted at then maybe the film would have had more intellectual heft to it. Instead, Pearce and his writers Darren Flaxstone and Christian Martin rush through the material without allowing it time to properly flourish. Indeed, the film seems to be attempting to engage with the sexual politics of penetration.

When Cal is a self-loathing closet case he gets his lovers to fuck him. And yet when he finds someone he sees as an equal, deserving of his love, he assumes a more active role. This is mirrored by the film's somewhat misogynistic depiction of women. Nessa gets fucked but she is always the aggressor, always the instigator. Clearly there is something very Freudian and castration-related floating about in the film's semiotics but, again, this theme never really emerges as anything more concrete than suggestions and whispers in the breeze. What's more, these themes do seem to be intended to a certain extent. Why else have Cal's first lover (who is also Olivier's teacher) hanging about like the ghost at the feast? Why suggest not only similarities between Cal and the teacher's lover but also have Cal be the person responsible for the teacher's lover being in a coma? Clearly, Shank is reaching for some deeper meaning but that meaning is lost in a haze of rushed and slapdash storytelling.

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