Sunday, July 20, 2014
Low-budget drama ‘Shifty’ covers 24 hours in the life of a London-based drug pusher as family pressures, the reappearance of a friend from the past, the attentions of an off-the-handle client and the escalating threat of violence close in on him; and, as such, sounds exactly like the kind of Brit-grim urban crime genre that’s been done to death since Guy Ritchie staked his claim to the territory with ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’ sixteen years ago.
But Eran Creevy’s assured debut is so much more than just dodgy geezers, dubious deals and eff-word-heavy dialogue (although, in the interests of accuracy, all three of these ingredients are present and correct). What it’s actually about is family, friendship, responsibility, regret, paths not taken, possibilities that remain, and the gossamer-like hope of redemption … or at the very least a new start. These are big themes for an 85-minute genre movie shot on a meagre £100,000 budget (kudos to Ed Wild’s cinematography and Erik Rehl’s production design for making it look like they spent ten times that much on it) and ‘Shifty’ could easily have been a sombre, plodding, po-faced piece of work. Creevy’s droll screenplay and confident directorial style, however, dispel all potential pitfalls, and what emerges is a very well nuanced, wryly observed and often very funny slice-of-life.
Shifty (Riz Ahmed) is the titular pusher, living with his devout Muslim brother Rez (Nitin Ganatra) after a falling-out with his parents. He’s well-educated (four A-levels), well-spoken and has the nous to conduct business within a specifically defined area and not upset the apple cart vis-à-vis his necessary relationship with Glen (Jason Flemyng), a player who operates in a higher tier of the criminal fraternity. Not that relationships between the major players are that fraternal, as Shifty discovers when he’s mugged and relieved of a significant chunk of Glen’s merchandise.
Self-employed building contractor Trevor (Jay Simpson) is Shifty’s least-favourite client – his favourite is crazy cat lady Valerie (Francesca Annis: terrific in a brief cast-against-type scene) – not least because he’s already run up a debt with Shifty while still badgering him for more crack. Trevor’s life is unwinding rapidly: he’s fired from a job for bringing drugs onto a building site, and his relationship with his wife Jasmine (Dannielle Brent) is reaching breaking point. Trevor sets himself on a trajectory that will ultimately be destructive for Shifty.
Into this increasingly pressurized environment comes Chris (Daniel Mays), Shifty’s best mate from back in the day who fled to Manchester years ago after a drug-related death he was implicated in. Chris’s return alerts Rez to his brother’s current activities, culminating in a confrontation that is low-key but effectively intense. Ahmed and Ganatra do excellent work here; both have real screen presence, with Ahmed vibing old-school movie star cool, and Ganatra possessed of a gravitas that allows for an appealingly minimalist acting style. Why both of them aren’t headlining major studio productions right now is a mystery.
In addition to great performances and quirky humour – “I can’t believe you’ve just sold crack to Miss Marple and struck a deal with Blazin’ Squad,” Chris remarks after their visit to Valerie ends with the unexpected cultivation of her wannabe urban rebel neighbour as a buyer – ‘Shifty’ benefits from Creevy’s decision to portray the kind of sinkhole estate familiar from everything from Ken Loach’s ‘Ladybird Ladybird’ to Andrea Arnold’s ‘Fish Tank’ not as a place of abject poverty and squalor but as home to a vibrant and unique set of characters. Yes, there’s graffiti and claustrophobic underpasses, but there are also parks and greenery and a sense that the characters are comfortable with their environment rather than being oppressed by it. Almost as an extension of this aesthetic, Creevy keeps the violence minimal and doesn’t fetishize it.
Regarding the violence, I don’t want to give away too much about the finale in which Shifty and Chris wait out what would be a long dark night of the soul if they didn’t spend so much of it making each other laugh. Suffice it to say they’re expecting a visit from some heavy types, an encounter Shifty could easily have avoided simply by leaving town (Chris repeatedly implores him to decamp to Manchester) but doesn’t on account of the trouble it would bring down on his brother. Suffice it to say that ‘Shifty’ makes a sudden but beautifully subtle transition from urban crime flick to moralistic western, a pusher and his loser mate unexpectedly recast as heroic sheriff and slightly shambolic deputy awaiting the superior numbers of their antagonists. It’s at this point that the film really becomes something special, claiming more kinship with ‘High Noon’ or ‘Rio Bravo’ than ‘RocknRolla’ or ‘Essex Boys’. And Creevy still has one more neatly executed switcheroo up his sleeve.
It was five years between ‘Shifty’ and Creevy’s next project, ‘Welcome to the Punch’, which underperformed at the box office. Here’s hoping his next project, the chase thriller ‘Autobahn’ starring Nicholas Hoult, Anthony Hopkins and Ben Kingsley, finally gives him the breakout success he deserves.