Gareth Evans Retrospective Part 1: Footsteps (2006)
We open with grainy first-person camcorder footage of a dirty underpass: one man lies prone on the ground while another stands over him with a length of metal pipe. An offscreen voice gruffly urges the second man to kill the first. When the second man resists, the cameraman tazes him into submission and instead tells the first man to pick up the pipe and kill the second, which he does with no hesitation. Turning towards the cameraman, he is maced, drops the pipe, and feebly tries to run away. The cameraman sets down the camera, picks up the pipe, calmly follows the man to the end of the tunnel and beats him to death as well. Cut to the opening credits, where industrial music blares over more images of beatings, snuff films, drug overdoses, torture, disquieting sexual interludes, murder, and bodies being carted away in bags by guys in creepy Alice Sweet Alice masks.
This is, make no mistake, a ballsy, attention-grabbing way to open your movie. Especially your first movie. It’s also better by far than anything that follows.
Footsteps (or Vengeance Day as the title card would have it on the version I watched – neither title feels particularly applicable) goes on to follow Andrew, a sullen young man who appears to be having a rough go of it lately; his girlfriend has just dumped him, his dad has been beaten into a coma, and he’s been laid off from his shitty factory job, leaving him with not much to do but rip off booze from his stepmom, act creepy at his ex, throw rocks at empty bottles, and lay Irreversible-style beatings on random dudes at clubs. He even has a goldfish, just so we really get that he’s an angry loner. Eventually (very eventually), he encounters the cameraman from the opening scene, who, impressed with his ability to take a beating, offers him a job accompanying his associate Paul as he deals drugs, collects debts, and pays mysterious visits to those creepy dudes in masks. But all this violence and degradation may be pushing Andrew to the breaking point.
So, like many upstart indie filmmakers of the 1990s and beyond, Gareth Evans got his start with the violent, stylish crime film, with a bit of a heavier emphasis on the trendy nihilism. Unfortunately, he skipped a lot of the common elements of the Tarantino clones, such as the sense of humor, the witty dialogue, the memorable characters, and the clever storytelling. What’s left is a lot of gritty violence paired with an adolescent view of kitchen-sink-realism and how the criminal underworld must work (for all the film’s focus on the criminal organization at the center – made up of like seven people, tops – we only see any money change hands twice). Aesthetically, it’s not dissimilar from Nicholas Winding Refn’s Pusher, but even that rather grim film is a lot more enjoyable than this one.
Which is not to say that a film can’t be grim and still be good. But apart from this dreary violence, the movie gives the viewer precious little else to latch on to. Andrew takes the non-entity protagonist to a perverse extreme; he spends the first 25 minutes of the movie just sort of dicking around (and it’s 20 of those before we learn his name or get a single line of dialogue out of him), and even after what passes for a plot kicks in proper – a third of the way in to a 75 minute movie that feels much longer than it should – he spends another 35 minutes in purely reactive mode. That takes us up to a full hour in which all we really get is one perfunctory fight in a bar along with endless scenes of feeding his goldfish, curling up in a fetal position in his bed, and driving around with Paul on various boring crime-movie errands.
It doesn’t help that all this cryptic, tight-lipped terseness ends up leaving almost every character’s motivations desperately unclear. I’ve already mentioned how little sense this crime syndicate makes (which, with the weirdness of their masked benefactors or whatever they are, may be intentional, but everything in the film is so muddled that it’s hard to parse), and without the movie ever letting us into Andrew’s head, we’re left puzzled as to, well, any of the character’s actions (among other things, I remain totally unsure of how much Andrew knows about the people who put his father in a coma, if anything). For a while he seems fine with his new criminal career and then he… just isn’t. As for the ex-girlfriend that the film gives so much prominence, we don’t get any dialogue at all out of her, which one could again chalk up as a deliberate stylistic choice if anything else in the movie clued us in that it had any idea what to do with its female characters – the only other two of note are Andrew’s unnamed stepmother, who shows up in one scene to give him his dad’s watch, and a woman Paul repeatedly harasses about a debt before ultimately killing her.
One would hope that when Andrew finally snaps and starts taking action in the final 15 minutes, we’d get some of the poetic mayhem that Evans would later become known for – and there’s a little bit of that in a brief fight scene taking place at the mysterious-masked-dude headquarters, but it’s far too little, far too late. Really, this feels like a student film that, to paraphrase Peter O’Toole, wasn’t released so much as it escaped. Hell, maybe that’s what it is, in which case I’ll feel bad about bagging on Evans et al so hard for it. In any case, we can all be glad that his next film – while not without its own flaws – would set him on a much more rewarding path.
Up Next: Merantau (2009)