Coy and fitful as it might seem, The Low Down captures the latent anxieties of a hazy, ambling existence with pinpoint accuracy. No chic urban-slacker exercise, Jamie Thraves’s wistfully amusing first feature sutures vignettes of nonevent and inaction into a decisive portrait of youthful malaise. The film, which concerns a group of fidgety going-on-30 Londoners, avoids both faux-eloquent, self-pitying assertions of ennui and the sweeping presumptuousness of a generational manifesto. It’s simply a candid, unpatronizing account of a predicament that might be described as the onset of embitterment: the mounting pressure to choose between running a risk and revising an ideal; the creeping recognition that what lies ahead has, while you weren’t looking, shape-shifted from a dauntingly vague expanse to a minefield of narrowing options.
Crippled by these (and other) gnarled neuroses, Frank (Aidan Gillen) has settled on a coping mechanism of sorts—mostly, he smiles and tries to recede into the background. An art school grad who works as a propmaker for TV shows, he lives in a flatshare next door to a crack den. A new housing arrangement is long overdue, but he may not be ready; in a nervous attempt at small talk with sweet-natured real estate agent Ruby (Kate Ashfield), he morbidly cites the French root for mortgage. They go out on a few dates, and though the rapport is evident and immediate, his habitual ambivalence soon gets in the way. As the rift between his two close mates widens (one burrows into cozy domesticity, the other clings to a lifestyle ostentatiously devoid of responsibility), nonconfrontational Frank flounders on in his self-imposed limbo. All the while, he battles a queasy, not-unrelated undercurrent of paranoia that freights the world at large with an almost surreal sense of menace.
Constructing a movie around a character who is essentially passive and inarticulate, Thraves dramatizes Frank’s debilitating self-consciousness via a wealth of telltale detail. He’s helped no end by Gillen, who first attracted attention for playing a ruthless slut on the original Queer as Folk, and here delivers a tour de force of miniaturist gesture—all bashful tics, wary silences, and increasingly ill-concealed aggression.
Cinematographer Igor Jadue-Lillo’s long-lens, short-attention-span Super-16 work fosters an air of offhand intimacy. The camera is by turns supremely alert (pouncing on a symptomatic snatch of body language) and as easily distracted as the protagonist, trailing off without warning to . . . the trajectory of a discarded cigarette, the inscription on a T-shirt, the underbelly of a low-flying plane overhead. This rangy, immensely likable film quivers with a playful new-wavey syncopation (jump cuts, freeze-frames). The recurrent trick of nonsynchronous sound and image mirrors Frank’s perpetual dislocation—the feeling that he’s been reduced to a bemused spectator of his own life. Some of the weight is ultimately lifted off our brooding hero, but the film takes its leave without prescriptions. Thraves knows better than to equate the organic, open-ended process of “moving on” with the resolution of a chronic existential dilemma.
Michael Winterbottom’s gristle-and-grime adaptation of Jude the Obscure was an honorably bleak affair, and the director who has until now never repeated himself strives again for Hardy-sized wreckage with The Claim, which borrows the premise of The Mayor of Casterbridge and transposes it to snowbound post-gold-rush Sierra Nevada. A prospector (Peter Mullan) who sold his wife and baby for mining rights now lords over the settlement of Kingdom Come. Years later, the dying missus returns (and she’s played by Tess herself, Nastassja Kinski) with their grown daughter (Sarah Polley) in tow. Winterbottom is in plain awe of the cruel, blinding landscape, and justifiably so. But he soft-pedals the tragic dimension, with the result that The Claim seems more than a little frostbitten—a numb, oddly dispassionate trudge toward predestined doom, inevitable in all the wrong ways.
Dennis Lim’s profile of Jamie Thraves.