"Wasteland" is a very solid entrant into the British "heist" genre, pairing the coolness of "Layer Cake" with the grittiness of "Trainspotting". Though not exactly fast-paced, it's also well-considered and without an ounce of wasted motion or effort. Boasting a compelling cast of characters, Wasteland" is a very smooth feature film debut from director Rowan Athale, and one that invites repeat viewings.
Harvey (Luke Treadway) has recently been released from prison for possession of heroin, yikes, and he's used his year in the clink to rethink the trajectory of his life, mulling on the important factors that might impact his future happiness. As the film begins, he's being interviewed by Detective Inspector West (played by the always great Timothy Spall), and he's confessing to a litany of misdeeds. His face is a pulpy mess (clearly it's been a violent evening), and Harvey's in deep trouble, in real danger of having his parole revoked, but he's still game for entering the ring with D.I. West for a bit of verbal sparring. Feeling very "Usual Suspects" during the first ten minutes, "Wasteland" is a film that will lead you through many twists and turns, efficiently shifting from comedy to drama throughout (and then upshifting and downshifting between frenetic violence and cerebral pals planning). Though it nearly runs a full two hours, there isn't an obvious soft spot in the plot, primarily because "Wasteland" is so effective at building the characters and their motivations, all the while letting you inside the heads of four "down on their luck" companions who are planning to serve a local drug dealer his well-deserved comeuppance. Harvey and his three mates are looking for a way out, and it's here that the film is buttressed by the great work of Iwan Rheon as Dempsey. The character of Dempsey is a loon, but he's a loon with emotional intelligence and loads of ambition.
One of the most interesting facets of "Wasteland" is how intimate the scope is. This isn't "Ocean's 11" where everything is played with a nod toward glamor, nor is it some "crime of the century" about a multi-million-dollar score – the stakes here remain relatively low. Sure, the four main protagonists will experience a life-changing amount of money should the plan go off, but from the overall lack of "pie in the sky" dreaming it's clear that the youth of this town have goals much closer to the ground - just being out from under a drug dealer's thumb for example. This limited gain versus true peril equation helps the movie feel more organic, more true to life, allowing the audience connect with the material.
Major kudos must also be given for the subtlety in which the inevitable romantic angle is handled. So often the sexual relationships of adult crime movies are thrown in there as a sugary paste, offering no accompaniment or value to the overall meal itself. Not the case here, as Harvey's erstwhile girlfriend (they broke up when he went to prison) Nicola (Vanessa Kirby) has depth, she's hopeful for the future but also wary of placing too much faith in Harvey, especially given his recent imprisonment and dismal prospects. Additionally, "Wasteland" refuses to throw out the trope of the single and completely unattached males going for the big score (with no apparent ties to the real world). If you think back on the history of heists in movies, generally the main characters have nothing to lose, and no one to account for, they're home free if they can hit their marks and cover the logistics involved in the caper. Clearly, this isn't at all like the world we inhabit, where people do make other friends and become embroiled in relationships. In the case of "Wasteland" one particularly well-crafted emotional scene is handled with real grace, showing the sacrifice that naturally proceeds from the idea of "and then we all escape this town!" It's strange for a film of this genre to offer an effective romantic lead and reasonable supporting characters, but "Wasteland" is efficient in its use of craft and story.
Are there any dings to be had here? Perhaps, but very few. It's hard to tell if everything completely adds up as the film reaches its finale, which is often the case when there's so many moving parts. This leads to a slight lack of clarity in the final thirty minutes. Harvey's voiceover method of storytelling has also been done to death, but that's only true because it can be entirely effective when handled well. Additionally, the verbiage and dialogue employed here will often be tough for American audiences. It's fast, slang-filled, and every so often borderline incoherent. I didn't mind it, chalking it up to the charm of the movie, but it could turn potential audience members off. Lastly, the villainous drug dealer is also slightly underdeveloped, but that's preferable to developing him in a ham-fisted manner, as many films only want to give you one noticeable characteristic with the bad guy, with that trait trending toward silly or stupid. Again, and with emphasis, that's not the situation here. An exceptionally difficult film to dislike, "Wasteland" is well deserving of an audience on this side of the pond.
SCORE: 8.8 / 10
"Wasteland" is now playing in theaters, and is available to rent and buy on iTunes.
Laremy wrote the book on film criticism and wishes he had the sort of friends who were good planners.