Frank (Aidan Gillen) makes props for tv shows. It’s not really what he wants to do. He’s an aspiring artist in his late twenties, but so far he but doesn’t have the ambition to move on. And so he survives, fashioning big clown heads and painting giant hands during the days, hanging out with his North London mates by night. He, Mike (Dean Lennox Kelly), and John (Tobias Menzies) spend time drinking, smoking cigarettes, and watching tv. Then Frank meets a girl. And his life changes.
The plot of writer-director Jamie Thraves’s The Low Down is spare, no doubt, and not especially original. But its tight focus, formally and thematically, on the self-consciously clueless Frank, makes it fascinating. Frank is surely a nice enough fellow when you first meet him, but he’s restless. When he meets Ruby (Kate Ashfield), an energetic, charming real estate agent who actually looks forward to the future rather than just waiting for it to happen to her, he can’t help but rethink what he’s doing, or more accurately, what he’s not doing.
Frank meets Ruby when he goes to her to find a new place to live (read: his life is in transition), because he’s been cast out of his own flat by his mate, who’s trying to get a woman he likes to move in with him. This sort of happenstance perfectly characterizes Frank’s life this far (or at least, as far as we see it): he’s blown about by winds over which he has no control and really, doesn’t much care that this is the case. Ruby’s drive and dynamic, multiple interests challenge him, and so he now he has a project: he decides to pursue her.
While Frank’s situation is common the film’s representation of it is not. Thraves draws from obvious sources for inspiration for his technique. He obviously knows his cool-guys-in-film-history, that is, his Scorsese, Godard, and John Cassavetes. It’s also clear that Thraves is not just quoting their visual styles or moments in their films, but instead is using them as faint background, sometimes arty touches that offer hints, at tones, ideas, even feelings, rather than telling you what to think. The film is really more about these devices—or more precisely, the ways that these devices represent than it is about Frank: he might develop at some point, maybe off screen, after the movie’s over, but you won’t see him going through any of the usual changes and you won’t be sharing his realizations. He’s an occasion for your emotional explorations more than he is a regular character, you know, the kind with whom you identify and sympathize.
This is not to say that Frank is not interesting, for he is, if not for his particular circumstances, than for his peculiar sensitivity to them: apparently unlike his good-times mates, he realizes something is not quite right, that he’s dissatisfied, but he’s unable to articulate—even to himself—what he wants or how he might be different. The Low Down‘s handheld Super 16 camera is as restless as Frank, sometimes comes so close to Frank, Ruby, or others, that you have trouble reading the shot, where they are in a room or what they’re looking at, how they’re responding to someone else in the scene. Or again, Frank loses his temper and throws a chair in frustration, but you don’t see it, only follow Ruby in to the kitchen where he sits next to the broken furniture. And at times, the frame freezes, or the sound goes out of synch with the image: Frank’s mouth isn’t moving, but you hear bits of his conversation with Ruby, so that he might be wishing that this is what he said to her, or remembering what he did say, or imagining what he will say at some eventual moment.
This play across time is the film’s most compelling and least settled element, as it probably should be. For it’s here that the movie asks you to watch it in a way that you don’t usually watch movies. The formal details don’t come together so much as they break open narrative possibilities, new ways of getting inside a character’s head. And this is a neat trick, given that most of the time, Frank isn’t even sure himself what he’s thinking or feeling. Gillen (who recently appeared in the UK’s Queer as Folk) brings a refreshingly delicate sensibility to Frank, who’s still struggling to understand that he even has options. It’s like you can see the wheels turning, when Frank frowns a bit or casts a glance in Ruby’s direction. Whether or not he’ll figure it out, you can’t be sure.