Joshua Reviews Rowan Athale’s Wasteland [Theatrical Review]

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There are very few genres as stuffed and crowded as the gangster/heist picture. With a new genre entrant released, be it in theaters or straight to DVD (I’m looking at you Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson), seemingly every week, it’s tough to break out and get a noticeable chunk of this genre’s market share.

Enter Wasteland. The debut feature film from writer/director Rowan Athale, Wasteland sounds, relatively, like most any other heist film. Opening with a bloodied man, Harvey, in an interrogation room getting set to tell us the steps leading to his arrival in the clink, we begin to learn more and more about this man and his life. As said by various people he comes in contact with, he’s a genuinely good, smart fella who just happened to get busted for possession of a good deal of heroin. However, was he set up?

After leaving prison after a year behind bars, Harvey (played wonderfully by the ever interesting Luke Treadaway) rounds up his troops, three of his closest buds, and plots to exact revenge on the man he finds the reason he was put away. While the narrative structure sounds like any other “edgy” crime drama, there are quite a few reasons why it’s both better, and worse, than most of its fellow gritty dramas.

First and foremost, this cast is absolutely to die for. Treadaway plays our lead, a man simply trying to make a worthwhile lot in life, and while it is your typical charismatic young man in search of revenge role, there is a sense of truth and a naturalism to the performance that not only makes it engaging, but ultimately thematically relevant. Set against a Britain that appears to be as stagnant socially and economically, these four men try to take their future into their own hands, in what turns into a narrative about criminal capitalism that fits in this year’s slate of pictures with similar themes.

Treadaway is joined by the threesome of Dodd (Matthew Lewis), Dempsey (Iwan Rheon) and Charlie (Gerard Kearns), all three of whom play typical “crew” roles, but do so extremely well. Rheon steals the show here as the second in command, adding a really interesting voice for our lead to bounce off of. Honestly, all four men, when together, make this film incredibly watchable, as their collective chemistry is remarkable. The script here, by Athale, is top notch, and the performances given to this percussive type of dialogue make it just pop off the screen with a visceral life not seen in too many pictures of this style.  Toss in the likes of Timothy Spall and Vanessa Kirby in small roles, and you have a collection of thespians that truly elevate the otherwise standard crime thriller narrative.

Athale also holds an oddly assured hand behind the camera. Beautifully shot by Stuart Bentley and wonderfully edited by Kim Gaster, the film Athale framing a film that is both glossy and crisp in its photography and intimate in its color palette. Portraying Britain as an icy cold and gritty landscape of wasted potential, the film is remarkably framed and shot, giving a sense of tactile realism to a genre that is not short on its use of more cartoonish aesthetics.

Not much more than a standard crime thriller ostensibly, the film is truly saved by superb performances and a director far more assured than the first time filmmaker tag would ever hint at. A charismatic, hopefully star making performance (think Andrew Garfield in the Red Riding Trilogy) from Luke Treadaway adding a great deal of depth and a collection of superb supporting performances rounding out the edges, this film is a far greater character study than it is a genre picture. Overlong and featuring a stuffed, frustrating, final act, Wasteland stands as a truly interesting bit of counterprogramming during a summer with more interest in destroying cities than breathing life to real, palpable characters.

Wasteland is currently available on VOD and is now in theaters in New York.

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