Friday, 11 July 2014

Review of The Long Way Down (2014)

Never have I seen a film with so much potential for human interest squander that potential so mercilessly and piteously. The core premise, that four people who separately decide to kill themselves on New Year’s Eve meet on the same rooftop and find the will to go on through each other, is both credible and interesting. They even fitted the film with a cast that could have pulled this off in their sleep; Pierce Brosnan, Imogen Poots, Toni Collette and Aaron Paul. The source material, Nick Hornby’s book of the same name, is a fine one, although not Hornby's best. What on earth went wrong?

The warning signs come early on, as we see disgraced TV presenter Martin Sharp (Brosnan) try to get his ladder up to the top of the building. He enters the lift, but the ladder won’t fit. He sighs, and takes it up the stairs. This sequence alone has so much potential; to be funny, to be disturbing, to be sad, but director Pascal Chaumeil shoots it in such a way that we are immediately detached from everything that’s going on. He goes wide, when a close-up would have been more impactful. This detachment lingers over the rest of the film like a ghost.

Once up on the roof, and traversing the gap to the end of the building, he falters. We focus on the “long way down”, which is fine in a superficial way, but for this scene to work, again, we need more focus on the actors, so that we can care. Soon, Maureen (Collette), is behind him. There is some weak comic dialogue between them. Soon, the other two of the group, a young runaway called Jess (Poots), and a pizza delivery boy called JJ (Paul) are there. The scene that follows, instead of exploring why people feel driven to suicide, squanders that potential and settles for being your standard "introduction to one-dimensional characters" lark. The scene culminates in the four of them making a pact not to kill each other before Valentine’s Day; the day with the second highest suicide rate, as Martin is quick to note. But why do we care?

Little lapses in the cinematic space-time continuum belie the overall cinematic cluelessness on display here. For example, Martin is the first person to exit the building, and we follow him sprinting down, yet when he gets to the street and is about to enter his car, Maureen is already there. Did she jump after all? 

Character motivations remain somewhat vague. Martin, for example, can seem like a reasonable man in one scene, and then explode with violence for no good reason in the next (see the scene where the four take a holiday, and Aaron Paul makes his big revelation). The most interesting aspect of the film, that Maureen has a disabled son at home, is glossed over and remains unexplored, except for hitting a few perfunctory notes that you could literally guess from me using the word "perfunctory notes". And the film-makers make a big error in leaving JJ’s individual story the most under-written one; Paul is the best actor here, but you wouldn’t know it. Too much time is spent on Poot’s irritating, disaffected posh-girl-with-attitude. The reason that Martin is a disgraced TV presenter (he had sex with a girl without realising she was underage) also remains unexplored. Jack Thorne’s screenplay is the equivalent of one big yawn.

Ultimately, it does just reek of squandered potential. Emphasis is placed in all the wrong places, and there is so little conviction from anyone involved. We are never really given a good reason for the quartet to actually spend any time together (this was done much better in the novel), and for that reason, the audience is never given a good reason to spend time around this quartet. It’s about as pleasant as kidney stones. 

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