Directors James Nunn and Ronnie Thompson, and writer James Moran (“Severance”), take on’ Broken Britain’ in this high concept British thriller with its laser-guided crosshairs focused firmly on the fractured communities and urban blight popularly associated in the contemporary imagination with the life of the modern housing estate -- the legacy of modernist planners of the 1960s responsible for the post-war redevelopment schemes, originally aimed at clearing British cities of their poverty-stricken slums, but which ended up giving us the residential tower block: the vertical living space optimistically once envisioned as the modern harbinger of futuristic ‘streets in the sky’, but soon reviled by the people who had to live in them as poorly constructed brutalist monuments to the blind impracticalities of urban planning. In “Tower Block”, the last remaining top floor residents of the tartly named Serenity House are still living with that legacy today as London redevelopers stand by to knock down another of these forbiddingly grim, concrete-grey 1960s totems to hopelessness and alienation. Everyone else in the block has long left or been re-housed, but this small collection of diverse urbanites find themselves holding out, side by side in their boxy flats, while the wrecking ball stands poised to move in for the twitchy, money-minded redevelopers impatiently awaiting their eviction.
Moran’s screenplay is no cheerleader for life in the good old tower block though: the residents are a conveniently diverse bunch of flawed individuals, representing various facets of modern alienation: there’s the plucky single girl Becky (Sheridan Smith), medicating a recent heartbreak with a one night stand; bullish divorced mum Carol (Julie Graham) and her bedroom-dwelling, ‘shoot ‘em up’ computer games obsessed son; the reclusive alcoholic loner Paul (Russell Tovey); and the young couple next door who are going through a rocky patch in their relationship; there’s dignified ex-army pensioner Neville (Ralph Brown) and his wife (Jill Baker) who now find themselves at the mercy of sneering adolescent thugs like Kurtis (Jack O'Connell) who demand ‘protection’ money just to leave them alone; and then there’s the ubiquitous chav single mum Jenny (Montserrat Lombard) who beats her little kid, while her neighbours look away lest they get a belligerent foul-mouthed earful. And does one even need to state the presence of the drug-dealing scuzzballs at the end of the corridor, whose less than savoury activities are silently ignored by all. This bunch live separate lives until they’re forcibly drawn together one morning after a highly organised sniper with military grade equipment and a high velocity assault rifle with night vision blocks all the exits, booby traps the lifts and fire exits, and sets about picking them all off in their own homes, one by one.
It’s a simple conceit. A modern variation on the siege movie with more than a little resemblance to “Assault on Precinct 13” except that the disparate group are being targeted by just one lone gunman. The urban sniper has become as much a symbol of the isolation and numbness of modern city living as the tower block itself: embittered individuals with a grudge against the world, who can only express their frustrations by randomly murdering faceless strangers from afar. Everyone in this film is initially alone or a part of insular couples, and most of the couples barely communicate. The opening scene-setting sequence has a teenager being beaten to death in the corridor by hoodie-wearing yobs, while each of our soon-to-be sniper targets bolt their doors and try to pretend it isn’t happening … apart from Becky, who in the end just can’t stand by while someone is murdered right outside her front door. But her heroics are in vein and the kid is killed anyway while Becky is left nursing a black eye and a swollen jaw in the subsequent assault. Such a set-up feeds into tabloid stories about people being mugged or murdered in crowded shopping centres while pedestrians walk on by, unwilling to involve themselves in anyone else’s business or risk harm to themselves. Each one of the residents is aware that on their own they can do nothing to help, and they also know that they risk repercussions if they talk to the police and find themselves involved in the dodgy business of the young, hardened yobs who seem to have full run of the place. Even Becky is unwilling to talk when a frustrated DC Devlin (Steven Cree) tries to interview her about what she saw that night but is given nothing to go on in his investigation.
Having provided us with this uneasy state-of-the-nation introduction to our divided cast of main characters, and after sufficiently highlighting the grimness of their twilight existence between depressing box-like walls shaded grey and sickly brown, Moran gets down to the entertaining business of bloodily killing them all off. The first kill is beautifully orchestrated and comes out of nowhere -- right in the middle of a quiet bit of character business truthfully portrayed by the two actors concerned, but which gets rudely interrupted when the side of one character’s head suddenly blows up! Moran’s screenplay is undoubtedly at its strongest when he’s finding ways to surprise us, despite the limitations and constraints necessarily imposed on a scenario grounded in such a well-defined concept. There are a legion of casualties immediately, meaning that there’s no wasting time with a slow build up here, while the cast gradually come to realise they’re being picked off: instead, the gravity of the situation is made abundantly clear to them immediately, with some of the sudden exits being uncompromisingly brutal, upping the stakes straightaway and creating a tension the co-directors and the film’s writer rarely let slip thereafter.
But a great deal of that tension comes from within the group itself. After they are forced out into the claustrophobic single corridor that is now the only place of safety available to them when their flats are pepper-sprayed with high velocity bullets capable of blowing a hole straight through any soft body they hit, Moran skilfully weaves a tapestry of character moments out of the group’s efforts to forge an instant community, as they struggle to come up with a plan of survival after years of mostly ignoring each other. Many of the actors will be familiar faces to British TV viewers and they all perform well here. Sheridan Smith already has a likable ‘every girl’ persona but has recently begun expanding her range, moving between diverse stage appearances in the popular musical version of “Legally Blonde” on the one hand and taking the lead role in a recent production of Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” (for which she’s received rave notices), on the other. Here she imperceptibly moves from being the ordinary single girl who likes a night out drinking to the resourceful vest-top wearing heroine who takes charge of the divided rabble, and she manages to make this necessary transition believable. Russell Tovey is equally appealing in a small but poignant role as the alcoholic character Paul, whose sense of self-esteem and concept of his own value are so low he’s willing to volunteer for a hugely dangerous escape attempt not out of heroism but simply because he knows he's the only one of the residents who doesn’t have anyone who will miss him if he fails. There’s gallows humour evident when his visible bodily shaking just before setting out on the mission, turns out to be not down to nerves but tremors caused by a lack of drink!
There are moments for each of the actors to shine, although some inevitably aren’t around for long. Undoubtedly the main focus of inter-group tensions emanates from the character of Kurtis, played by Brit-yob-for-hire Jack O'Connell. Kurtis is one of those predatory, ruthless, unlikable and utterly amoral streetwise characters who have become the bogeymen of contemporary British tabloid culture. Moran's writing is skillful in making us hate and fear him in equal measure and O’Connell, who has by now perfected this type of character in a string of roles from “Eden Lake” to “Harry Brown” for the cinema, and in “Skins” and “This is England” on TV, steals the film as he steers the character on a finely balanced trajectory that requires what is an unconscionable, self-centred thug to be in some measure redeemed in the final moments. Kurtis does and says many reprehensible things during the course of this film, but Moran also always gives him all the best lines, so we end up wanting to like him, and then being disappointed when he does something even more unpalatable: some of the best scenes in the movie play out between O’Connell and Ralph Brown, who plays the retired ex-army man who’s been terrorised and threatened by Kurtis for years. The two now have to find some way of accommodating each other’s existence if any of the group is to stand a chance of getting out of their desperate situation alive.
In many ways of course, each character is a carefully hand-picked stereotype, but the point being made, alongside the desire to entertain with a finely honed thriller scenario, is that our stereotypical views of each other inevitably take over when communities become merely collections of atomised individuals. The black-clad, hooded sniper’s inhumanity (his identity isn’t too hard to work out) is fostered by exactly the same tendencies as those which lead to all the other social deprivations highlighted in the residents’ various dysfunctional relationships. The film generally gets away with the necessary manipulations required to get the idea behind the film to work in the first place, although some of the CGI and green screen work is too cheaply produced to pass muster and unfortunately takes us out of the downbeat urban ambiance of the piece during several key moments. In general though this is a smart, well-judged, nicely acted thriller that rehearses all the expected character beats you expect from such material: unlikable characters eventually acquire pathos and elicit some degree of sympathy; unpleasant, violent, downright reprehensible and selfish ones are eventually redeemed, etc. But it works well enough to make you forgive this scripted dance of manipulations.
The DVD and Blu-ray from Lionsgate UK provides a decent enough transfer and audio presentation but the only extra is a six minute behind-the-scenes piece featuring superficial interviews with cast members and writer James Moran.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!