Ulu Grosbard’s under-seen and underrated 1978 film Straight Time (based on the equally excellent book No Beast So Fierce by Edward Bunker) uses this premise to explore the way in which the released inmate’s, played by Dustin Hoffman, life is defined by the way in which they have been labelled by society.
In his debut film, Wild Bill, Dexter Fletcher treads similar territory with his lead character struggling to adjust to life outside of prison but in addition he introduces an intense family drama to the mix.
The titular Bill (Charlie Creed-Miles) returns home from prison after many years inside and in the interim period his two sons, Jimmy (Sammy Williams) and Dean (Will Poulter), have been abandoned by their mother and left to fend for themselves. In Bill’s absence 15 year-old Dean has taken on the role of the family patriarch and cares for his younger brother whilst trying to hold down an illegal job on a construction site. Rather amusingly, and with a hint of social commentary, the construction site in question is the London 2012 Olympic Velodrome.
Shortly after Bill’s release he is deposited unconscious onto Dean and Jimmy’s sofa, Bill’s old friends do a good job of celebrating his return by helping him get totally inebriated. Dean and Bill instantly clash, Dean clearly blaming his father for, in his eyes, abandoning them. The animosity intensifies when Bill later highlights the boy’s living arrangements to the social services leading to a rather awkward home visit.
Bill is at first a reluctant father, uninterested in taking care of the boys and anxious to get away from his old criminal life, planning to move up north for work and a new start. Dean manages to blackmail him into staying though, at least until the social services are off their backs.
The remainder of the film follows a path that is perhaps not too difficult to predict, with Bill upsetting the apple cart by refusing to get back involved with his old friends’ criminal activities, Dean and Jimmy reconnecting with their father and a slight romantic sub-plot between Bill and local prostitute Roxy (Liz White). The film rests not on dramatic twists and turns though but on a slow and engrossing story that pulls you into the world in which the main protagonists and a number of side characters (populated by very recognisable British actors) live. This is done with expediency and an economy that ensures that a lot of the characters really get under your skin without the film feeling crowded or over-reaching.
The way in which the actors inhabit their roles is also essential to this investment and there are many performances to commend here. Poulter is perhaps most noteworthy, unsurprising to anyone who has seen his impressive debut in Son of Rambow in 2007, but Liz White is also excellent in a role that could have so easily been a simple stereotype. The way her character is drawn has subtlety and she brings a lot of warmth to the role.
Fletcher perhaps lives up to a widely held belief here about the ability of actor turned directors to coax strong performances out of actors but a lot of the groundwork is clearly already there in the script (written by Fletcher and Danny King). Fletcher’s direction is also mostly very competent with the film feeling entirely cinematic, no complaints here about this looking like an ITV drama, but retaining an intimate and small scale approach. Cinematographer George Richmond does excellent work too, helping give the film a look of its own and technically notable shots such as a long tracking shot early on, which weaves through their flat and the corridor outside, belie the low budget roots of the film but are appropriate to the content, not simply grandstanding.
Far removed from the nonsensical and childishly excessive gangster films that have clogged up DVD shelves in the UK, particularly in the wake of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (in which Fletcher starred), Wild Bill is a convincing and absorbing drama and an impressive début feature.
Wild Bill is playing as part of the London Film Festival on the 21st and 23rd of October.