With shades of Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges and Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey dotting his canvas, Scottish actor Robert Carlyle makes a bold impression as a first-time director with Barney Thomson, a brash, dirty little film that’s eager to please in devilish ways.
Carlyle, perhaps immediately recognizable as a human-turned-flesh-eating-zombie from the 2007 horror sequel 28 Weeks Later, does little to clean up his act (or blood) on his feature directorial debut, in which he also stars as the titular character, a brutish Glasgow barber who spends most of the film comically attempting to cover up the accidental murder of his boss while bumbling law enforcement pry into his staggeringly mediocre life.
Blending dark humor with a flair for the violently absurd, Barney Thomson can be viewed as a tale of the everyman’s revolution; Barney is of course an aging cog in the working class machine, whose outwardly vile attitude, mistreatment of customers, and foul-mouthed engagement with the world around him register as reactions to “the system,” whatever that might be. Barney, whether catering to the needs of his chain-smoking mother (Emma Thompson, stealing the show with one of her best performances in years) or being belittled by his much younger coworkers, is simply a rusty tool tired of servicing a barrage of sameness, and pressure mounts for a deadly conclusion.
Barney Thomson’s script, co-written by Colin McLaren and Richard Cowan, works on several levels, never losing sight of its roots as a crime saga while maintaining a firm grasp on the charm of its characters, whose wit and motivations—even when misguided or venom-filled—suggest a complex tapestry greater than their dirty mouths and churlish behavior initially let on. Barney Thomson champions the voice of the middle class outcast, and comes alive thanks to the talents of its colorful supporting players, including Ugly Betty’s Ashley Jensen and veteran UK performer Ray Winstone as a pair of clueless detectives hovering a few miles off-course when it comes to finally pegging the crimes to Barney. These secondary faces are dutifully crafted in the same way the Coens weave memorable characters like Mike Yanagita (Fargo) or Carson Wells (No Country for Old Men) into the fabric of their stories, and Barney Thomson thankfully feels in-tune with each one of its moving, suspenseful, thrilling, humorous parts and characters without feeling like it’s fumbling to ensure all buttons are properly fastened.
Having lived a life on both sides of the camera, Carlyle has an instinctual knowledge of what works for both a viewer and an actor, and combines both worlds to make Thomson an exercise in unabashedly vile entertainment that wisely focuses on the interplay of its actors, though it sometimes feels bogged down in its insistence on stitching it all together with a framework that feels crafted by other hands. From the savage interactions between Barney and his mother to the way the legendary Tom Courtenay pops in and out from behind a giant desk as a no-nonsense (but no less comically clueless) police chief, Barney Thomson’s roots as an ensemble crime comedy remind us of similar dynamics borrowed from the likes of Seven Psychopaths, In Bruges, and especially Burn After Reading.
Without giving too much away, Barney, as a character, rises to a certain level of notoriety on the other side of his self-imposed takedown by the film’s end. We see a man go from David to Goliath on his own terms, and our appreciation for the film’s enjoyable—if borrowed—brand of humor grows alongside his transformation as well. Ultimately, Barney Thomson’s roots are exposed too easily, and the question of “where’d they get that from?” often trumps our curiosity of where the film at hand is going, and that’s a problem. But, that doesn’t make Barney Thomson’s nudging, “love me, warts and all” tone any less satisfying, as if Carlyle wants us to laugh at—but also root for—the amorality on display as an excuse to slather ourselves in escapist obscenity just for kicks. B+