The Low Down
review by Gregory Avery, 20 April 2001

The characters in The Low Down all look like they've just fallen out of bed. They're bleary-eyed. They wear clothes that can be easily laundered and then tossed down anywhere, without having to be pressed or hung-up. Aidan Gillen's character, Frank, who works in a small shop in London that makes props for TV shows, has hair which has a standing-on-end quality that looks as if it hasn't been brushed or combed for days. It's not as if he hadn't meant to; he just hasn't.

The characters also speak in ellipses. "It's, um,...poky, isn't it?" says Ruby (Kate Ashfield), the realty agent who shows Frank an apartment that turns out to be in less than stellar condition. "Come in, and we'll...discuss," says John (Tobias Menzies), who works alongside Frank making props, and who has slept-in and forgotten that he was supposed to go and do something with him. At other times, the characters speak loudly, brashly, coarsely, they interrupt each other, cajole, evade.... They come across like -- good grief! -- genuine, grade-A, recognizable human beings.

Jamie Thraves, who wrote and directed the film, has made it in a loose, neo-improvisational style that is meant to give the proceedings an "authentic" feel, while leaving a way open to incorporate such devices as when the film freeze-frames the moment where one character looks at another, and vice-versa, and falls in love. Some of the conversational scenes are filmed in a very up-close, suspended way that brings to mind the opening-credits sequence for Michelangelo Antonioni's Zabriskie Point, except that there was a particular reason why the sequence was filmed that way (to show that an "open" discussion doesn't necessarily mean that people are connecting with each other, and could even be driving them further apart), and Antonioni didn't make the rest of the film that way. Here, it could be the result of the filmmakers simply using fast, compact equipment (which also happened to squash the visual depth-of-field), partly so they can exercise better control over the material, which focuses on characters who started out with some promise but have now become almost completely marginalized.

John, whose friendship with Frank goes way back, started out as an artist but has gotten himself into a self-perpetuating pattern that has all but effectively sabotaged his chances at having a future. He arrives at work habitually late, says that his car has broken down, again, while wearing newly-bought shoes which are not inexpensive. Tobias Menzies gives John the pitiable but nonetheless maddening quality of someone who's careening into trouble but won't listen to anybody telling him to stop, deflecting criticism while asserting his wrongheadedness and unwillingness to relent. Placed in charge of painting a huge human hand carved from synthetic material, John proceeds to use yellow rather than flesh-colored paint on it -- it's an "artistic prerogative, he explains, as if hoping that someone will validate his idea and lend it, and him, some credence. Frank and Mike (Dean Lennox Kelly), who runs the shop, can't decide on letting John go if he feels this strongly about doing things his way, because they know that, left to his own devices, John will flounder haplessly and vanish. John is dependent on these two guys, and they know it, even though he continually drives them to distraction.

Frank, in the meantime, has taken up with Ruby, who, as played by Kate Ashfield, has a sweet quality as well as a keen sensibility which is endearing. They don't so much fall into a relationship as become inexorably drawn into one. They both say up-front what caused their last relationships to break up, and then, certainly enough, the same things start happening that caused their last break-ups to occur. What ostensibly makes Aidan Gillen's character seem appealing -- his way of smiling quietly and observing things with an even look, as if he's calm and self-assured under the surface -- is in fact what betrays his biggest weakness, which is his consistency at becoming disengaged from what's going on around him. In one scene, Frank and Ruby decide to go down to the corner pub for a drink, but, partway there, Ruby comments on a window that Frank left open in his second-floor flat, a window which faces the street where a group of guys stand on the corner, talking and hanging-out. Frank becomes convinced that he has left himself open to being robbed blind, and can't take another step forward. Yet, when he and Ruby go back to the apartment, Frank can't go back out again -- he's sure that the guys they passed on the corner will think that they came back because they thought they would rob Frank's flat. It doesn't matter whether the guys noticed Frank and Ruby coming or going at all, or whether it makes any difference what they think -- Frank becomes paralyzed over the thought that he did something that would cause anyone else, for whatever reason, to believe he had "thought badly" of them, while, at the same time, reconfirming his idea that he can't do anything without messing it up.

The reason Frank had contacted Ruby at the realty office in the first place was because he was thinking of moving into a better neighborhood: the one where he lives now actually used to be worse than it already is, and there are other things, too, such as the girl who materializes in the street in the middle of the night, continually calling the name of a man who lives next door but never responds to her summons. When Ruby shows Frank a flat in a reconverted townhouse that's in a better neighborhood, though, Frank becomes ambivalent -- "too posh" is his reason for not taking it.

In a scene near the beginning of the film, the circle of friends who form the center of the story are recovering from a night where each of them had that one extra drink that they shouldn't have had, and now they're feeling the consequences of it. In the middle of all this, Mike unashamedly announces, "I can honestly say that I love feelin' this s**t...." It would be easy to say that there is the explanation for Frank's problems all along, that Frank has simply resigned himself to being a screw-up and to being perpetually disappointed in life. What makes the difference with this film -- and in Aidan Gillen's portrayal of Frank -- is that it shows us something further. We can see how Frank can, in fact, perfectly enjoy having something good in life when he has it -- watching Ruby sleep next to him in the early-morning hours, or seeing her putting on her makeup for the day. But we also see what makes him decide to let his life go in the other direction, and how that decision will end up affecting how he spends the rest of his life. Being down in the dumps is someplace that has taken on a familiar geography to him and, therefore, is comfortable and even reassuring in its consistency, even if it is making him miserable. It is a way of making sense of his life and of the world; moving on to something new, and better, is unknown and, therefore, too terrifying to submit to. Frank does end up moving to a better apartment by the end of the film, but he is still looking up to see when the sky is going to fall on him again.

Written and
Directed by:

Jamie Thraves

Aidan Gillen
Kate Ashfieldi
Tobias Menzies
Rupert Proctor
Samantha Power
Dean Lennox Kelly

NR - Not Rated
This film has not
yet been rated








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