Every six months or so it seems the British film industry cranks out another modestly budgeted crime flick. Usually identified by a cast of recognizable but not quite famous faces, a desaturated color scheme, working class setting and familiar plot machinations, these are comfort food for genre fans that provide a distraction for a couple of hours and little else more. However, every now and then a film breaks out of the mould, offering up a higher standard of filmmaking verve and storytelling inspiration to become something that stretches beyond its genre trappings. "Wasteland" is not one of those movies.
Starring Luke Treadaway ("Attack The Block," "Clash Of The Titans") and Timothy Spall (for most folks, a Hey-It's-That-Guy from numerous movies) and written and directed by Rowan Athale making his feature debut, the set-up doesn't get much simpler (and sort of absurd) than this. The film is told through flashback as a beaten and bloody Harvey Miller (Treadaway) sits in a police interrogation room being interviewed by Detective Inspector West (Spall). Arrested for breaking into a workingmen's club, Harvey starts his story six weeks back when he was released from prison, and how he reunited with this three best mates with dreams of—get this—opening a coffee shop in Amsterdam. Of course, they'll have dodge some people from their past, but they're mapping out one big heist that could change their fortunes forever.
The problem with "Wasteland" is that it never gets going. The big finale of the movie is watching the heist unfold and seeing how Harry and his pals get away with it, but it takes nearly half the movie before they even start plotting it. So before that, we get a lot of mostly unnecessary backstory involving Harry and his girlfriend Nicola (Vanessa Kirby), a clash with a local bruiser who has it in for him, and various other little threads concerning his friends who are in on the job with him. But we've seen variations on all these relationships time and again in numerous, similar movies, so instead of being a steady build to a satisfying payoff, "Wasteland" instead spins its wheels, clumsily positioning everyone involved for the second half of the movie.
And as for that big heist? It's... okay. Athale does the old trick of showing the audience how it seems to have gone down first, and then goes around a second time to reveal how it really happened. But for all the waiting, the big job just isn't all that satisfying. Hoping to push the stakes and twists a bit higher, viewers also wait to see how Harry gets himself off the hook at the police station. But the fake outs are mild, the con game never more than tepidly amusing and the whole thing unfurls with such a lack of urgency, that combined with a rather uninspired goal, "Wasteland" is not so much a slow burn as a no burn.
While the movie itself may not ever spark, the cast do what they can. Treadaway at least makes a compelling enough lead to carry viewers through the film's many soggy patches, but one wonders why you hire Spall to put him in a supporting role that keeps him in a single room for the entire movie. Lethargic and not particularly invigorating or fresh, you can skip "Wasteland" and wait for the next Brit crime flick that will be following before long. [C]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival.