It’s a phrase that’s entered in the language in recent years, making its presence felt especially in the media. County lines. A network of children used to traffic drugs from the city to rural towns and villages. But what’s the reality for the people involved, for the young people acting as drug “mules”, their families, their schools? One person who’s seen it for real is Henry Blake, director of County Lines, which is released in cinemas this week.
His experience as a youth worker in a Pupil Referral Unit – something he hasn’t given up entirely – is the inspiration for his debut feature. What started life as a short has now expanded into a full length film, which follows 14 year old Tyler (Conrad Khan), a withdrawn teenager whose mother struggles to keep her family afloat. With money pressures piling up, he increasingly feels that, as the man of the house, he should find of way of supporting his mother. It makes him easy prey for local drugs kingpin, Simon (Harris Dickinson), who coerces the boy into becoming a train-bound drugs courier, which takes him into a world of violence, exploitation and deceit.
Blake’s approach in telling Tyler’s story is direct, but it’s not just his – it’s the story of the thousands we never hear about or see. He’s simply one link in a long, long chain – a few others slip in and out, but they’re all in the same situation. Everything that goes with what he’s doing, from his method of carrying the drugs, to the brutal beating he receives when he tries to muscle in on another dealer’s patch, is laid out for us on a plate. Little is left to our imagination but, at the same time, we only ever hear and see exactly what we need to and Blake’s restrained approach to his narrative heightens the film’s devastating impact.
At the centre of this vicious, if not deadly, cycle is Simon, a modern-day Fagin if ever there was one. Harris Dickinson only appears in a handful of scenes, but his character casts a long, threatening shadow as he casually manipulates and exploits his young dealers, something he does because, in his own words, “it’s easy.” It’s a superbly cold-blooded, calculating performance. Equally impressive is Conrad Khan in his breakout role, one that asks a lot of him as a young actor: his opening scene relies purely on his facial expressions and, as his situation deteriorates further, we’re even more aware that underneath he’s still a boy, full of confusion and turmoil.
With its dark, brooding clouds and bleak night time scenes, the film’s sense of hopelessness hardly ever lets up, nor does it ever attempt to offer any easy solutions. Dour and harsh, it’s never short on compassion for those caught up in the vicious web of drug dealing, brilliantly shining an important light on one of today’s issues, one that inevitably exists in the murkiest of shadows.
Thriller, Drama | Cert: 15 | BFI Distribution | Cinemas, BFI Player, Curzon Home Cinema| 4 December 2020 | Dir. Henry Blake | Conrad Khan, Harris Dickinson, Ashley Madekwe, Marcus Rutherford