He’s the hard man of British cinema. After leaving Albert Square in the early 2000s, Craig Fairbrass set his sights on cinema, starting small but rising to the top with the likes of the Rise Of The Footsoldier franchise, Villain and Muscle. Gritty, testosterone soaked thrillers are his stock in trade and while his latest, A Violent Man, brings everything you’d expect to the table, actor Ross McCall’s directorial debut strikes a markedly different tone, asking his leading man for more than just bulging biceps.
Steven Mackelson (Fairbrass) has served 20 years of a life sentence behind bars in a maximum security prison. He knows the system inside out, solitary confinement included, and is afraid of nothing and nobody, but now he has a new cellmate Marcus (Stephen Odubola), a young, impressionable gang member who reminds Steve of himself at the same age. At the same time, he’s due to have his first ever visit from his estranged daughter. Whether it means closure or opening doors he has no idea, but he is forced to face his past and reflect on his behaviour.
McCall gives the film a distinctive style right from the opening sequence, a savage knifing which shifts in and out of focus. We don’t get anywhere close to the attack and the approach continues throughout the film: it doles out the mandatory violence that the menacing atmosphere leads us to expect, but we’re shown the aftermath, leaving everything else to our imagination. The brooding claustrophobia that goes with the prison interior – it never ventures outside – spills over into the sound, with the film often smothered in slow voices and unexpected silences, Pinter-esque pauses between words and long periods when dialogue is redundant, so the story is told purely through visuals.
The escalating tension lurking beneath that subdued tone echoes the machinations of Steve’s mind. On the one hand, he wants to come to terms with what he’s done, to understand why violence is such an inherent part of his nature. But on the other, he’s still trying to justify his actions, still shifting responsibility onto others, be it the prison system or his ex-wife, and questioning the value of meeting his daughter after so many years. It gives Fairbrass, who also serves as the narrator, plenty to get his teeth into as an actor, although the script doesn’t give him, or Odubola, the opportunity to fully develop the potential for their mentor/mentee relationship. Nor is its love of monologues always successful: while some give a better understanding of the speaker’s thoughts, others sound awkward and forced, regardless of the actor delivering them.
As well as writing and directing, McCall gives himself a one scene role with Fairbrass, which is one of the film’s highlights. He’s also picked a strong supporting cast for his leading man, including Jason Flemyng and Philip Barantini, whose name has become more familiar of late for his spectacular feature directing debut, Boiling Point. Uneven in places, the film is still a strong, stylish calling card for McCall as a writer/director to watch out for. And a further illustration of Fairbrass’s ability to command the screen.
Thriller, Crime | Cert: 18 | UK Cinemas, online | 4th February 2022 | Vertigo Releasing | Dir. Ross McCall | Craig Fairbrass, Stephen Odubola, Jason Flemyng, Ross McCall, Philip Barantini.