Any movie containing the line “You need to grab that hacksaw and start on his legs” is already halfway to winning me over, and Philip Barantini’s “Villain” does not disappoint. Populated by men with fists like shovels and faces like bruised fruit, this British crime drama has, for all its grime and gutter maneuvering, an unusual, mournful dignity.
For that we can thank Craig Fairbrass, who plays the aging ex-con Eddie Franks with a pained nobility that sets him apart from the motormouthed Cockneys who typically throng movies like this. Emerging from a long stretch, Eddie can’t catch a break. His estranged daughter (a beautifully expressive Izuka Hoyle) wants nothing to do with him, and his useless brother, Sean (George Russo), is running the family pub into the ground while shoving the takings up his nose. Worse, Sean is in debt to a pair of pitiless local gangsters (Robert Glenister and Tomi May) who are disinclined to accept an I.O.U.
As straightforward and deliberate as its title — even the punches land with studied force — “Villain” has no side or swerves: just a slow accretion of aggravation as Eddie is nudged irresistibly toward old behaviors. Along the way, though, despondent glimpses of the void between Eddie’s past and a present he struggles to recognize deepen the character and guarantee our sympathy.
The result is an exceedingly well-made first feature, a simple genre movie elevated by strong visuals, potent performances and a mood that falls somewhere between resignation and guttering hope. With no small amount of heart, Barantini has taken familiar ingredients and hard-boiled them into a meditation on the improbability of late-life atonement. And the inadvisability of choosing manual over power tools.