David Blair’s Best Laid Plans is a film that suffers from something – a nagging, pervasive ambivalence – that leaves a taste lingering in the mouth, and not necessarily a pleasant one. There’s a tiny chance that could have been that unexpected peanut Revel, sure, but it was almost certainly the film.
One of the things to like, as with most things in which he appears, is the performance of the borderline-ubiquitous Stephen Graham, who seems utterly incapable of being anything less than excellent in anything. Hell, he even came out of Doghouse with pride and career intact, and that was crap.
Graham’s Danny is the small-time chancer – the sort of archetypal yet loveable Scouse rogue that blends indiscernibly into his oeuvre, much as piss disperses evenly into the shallow end of a swimming pool – who finds himself indebted to psychotic gangster Curtis (David O’Hara).
Initially Curtis’ heavies – sent after Danny to collect his debt – are seen off by Danny’s best friend Joseph (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbajeå – Lost’s Mr Eko), for whom Danny is surrogate carer. Joseph is mentally disabled, his hulking frame belying the innocent, childlike personality within. Yet his furiously clinical reaction to seeing Danny threatened doesn’t escape the notice of Curtis, who gives Danny a chance: convince Joseph to participate in a bout of bare-knuckled boxing, and the debt is waved. Fail to do so, and they’re both dead.
That Danny manages to convince Joseph to fight through a cocktail of lies, manipulations and half-truths doesn’t come as a surprise, given the options. Danny isn’t exactly a stand-up citizen, though – Joseph simply doesn’t recognize the corrosive nature of Danny’s cocaine, booze and hooker proclivities, instead seeing his friend through the selective prism of loyalty and love.
Danny is selfish, scared, weak and – occasionally – cruel, yet his dedication to Joseph is the constant in his life, and it is the threat to this this that drives him to go to such extreme lengths. Danny’s just trying to protect Joseph from things he doesn’t understand, yet Danny is the one to blame for them.
Once the fights inevitably begin it’s hard not to be affected somehow by the tragedy and intrinsically uncomfortable nature of them, and Blair doesn’t try to milk any joy from seeing Joseph tear strips off a procession of bulldog-faced bruisers.
He’s no One-Punch Mickey, there’s no joy or triumph here – it’s tears, resentment and pain. The fight scenes aren’t realistic enough to devastate, and yet, due to the nature of the film, aren’t fun to watch either. So, considering that they are regular occurrences, are they entertaining? Hmm.
The title of the film isn’t exactly trying to disguise the source of the story. In many ways, Best Laid Plans is an interesting interpretation of John Steinbeck’s novel. A modern setting certainly does it no harm, and the friendship between the two men is one we don’t need to see the beginning of to believe in. The fact is, however, that mental illness is an extremely tricky subject matter to pull off, and a scenario in which a man with severe learning difficulties is forced into violence doesn’t seem like a particularly good approach to try.
Akinnuoye-Agbajeå’s performance is earnest and sweet, yet something about it doesn’t quite ring true. It’s a niggling failing from which the film never really recovers. Joseph’s emergent friendship with Isabel (Maxine Peake, in an oddly chosen and thankless role), who has difficulties similar to his, yields a fair amount of tender enough moments, yet it’s odd for a film about exploitation to feel quite so exploitative, not to mention a little reductionist towards the problems it conveys.
Don’t misunderstand – there’s nothing worse than those ostentatiously over-reactionary arseholes who, from a position of unearned moral superiority, take offence on behalf of others (usually for the benefit of their Twitter followers). No subject is taboo, and anyone who thinks films cannot be made about mental illness that aren’t solely and piously about mental illness is both an idiot and part of the problem.
Yet even the most reasoned amongst us might take slight umbrage when a film such as this revels in the line ‘two mongs don’t make a right.’ This line stands out (and is therefore mentioned here) solely because it sits so at odds with what the rest of the film seems to be trying – and sometimes succeeding – to do.
The dramatic scenes, inevitably, work best, despite subplots occasionally pulling in unwelcome directions, with Stephen Graham once again emerging utterly unscathed. He makes Danny more human than his actions deserve – nuanced, affable, unhinged – and, as he’s shown before (see This Is England’s Combo), he plays these morally conflicted characters better than anyone else.
It’s just that the film doesn’t hang together well enough to earn a recommendation or to provide enough reason, besides his performance, to part with your cash. Especially sitting as it does in the odd little no man’s land between a sensitive drama, a gangster thriller and an exploitation film. It’s interesting, generally well acted and probably well-intentioned, yet it’s also morally muddled, saggy in the middle and narratively contrived.
Listen, Chronicle’s out this week. Why not go and see that instead? It’s really good.