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Wicked Blood

aka Bad Blood

D: Mark H. Young / 92m

Cast: Abigail Breslin, Sean Bean, James Purefoy, Alexa Vega, Lew Temple, Jake Busey, Jody Quigley

Hannah Lee Baker (Breslin) and her sister Amber (Vega) live in a small Southern town. Both their parents are dead and they live with their uncle Donny (Temple). Hannah is something of a chess prodigy and views the world around her in terms of a tournament match, with the pieces on the board representing the people she interacts with. The king is her uncle Frank (Bean), the local crime boss. After receiving a threatening visit from the FBI about Frank, she hatches a plan to leave town and take her sister and Donny with her. She approaches Frank and asks for a job making drug deliveries at $20 a time. He agrees to the job but gives her only $10 a time. Picking up the drugs from the trailer where Donny cooks it, her first delivery is to biker Bill Owens (Purefoy), a meth dealer who acts as Frank’s distributor; unknown to Hannah, Bill has begun seeing Amber.

When some of the drugs Bill has been distributing prove to be cut with vitamins, he tells Frank about it and asks for compensation. When Frank refuses to pay, an argument breaks out between Bill’s buddy Jackson (Quigley) and Frank’s brother Bobby (Busey). Bobby is keen to hit back at Bill and Jackson for their being disrespectful but Frank needs Bill to continue distributing his meth. Nevertheless, Bobby kills Jackson and another of Bill’s associates, but Bill doesn’t retaliate. He tells Hannah (who he’s now befriended) that he doesn’t want a war. He’s also fallen in love with Amber and doesn’t want to jeopardise his relationship with her. Meanwhile, Hannah is trying to convince Donny to leave with her and Amber but he’s too afraid of what Frank will do if he does; he’s also addicted to the product he makes.

Things are brought to a head when Bobby, who has a crush on Amber, sees her with Bill. One night he goes to collect her at Frank’s request but she refuses to go. When he grabs her she fights back but Bobby overpowers her and beats her half to death before dumping her body outside town. When she wakes up in the hospital, Bobby pays her a visit and threatens to hurt Hannah if Amber says anything. But Hannah guesses the truth and seeks Bill’s help. He refuses though, leaving Hannah to seek revenge on her own, and set in motion a series of events that will either see her plan come to fruition, or find her dead at the hands of her uncle Frank.

Wicked Blood - scene

From its low-key opening, with Hannah playing chess against a little boy, to its downbeat ending at the trailer, Wicked Blood is a crime drama that aspires to be something more than just another tale of one person’s determination to break free from hometown ties. Hannah’s need to escape is highlighted by her serious demeanour: she finds it difficult to find any amusement in life, brushing off the attentions of a skateboarder with undisguised disdain, and being told by Donny that she doesn’t smile anymore. She relies on her plan, adapting it when necessary, refusing to let go of it, or come up with another one. The allusion to chess, that it’s not just a game, the same as Life, is firmly made, and Hannah’s focus is unwavering. It all adds up to a character who is entirely believable, despite her teenage years, and Hannah is ably brought to life by Breslin. It’s a strong performance, utterly credible and a clear indication that Breslin isn’t going to be one of those child actors that doesn’t make the transition to adult roles.

With such a strong central character it would be natural to expect a slight drop-off in the quality of the remaining individuals the movie is concerned with. But thanks to the quality of the script, courtesy of director Young, this isn’t the case. Frank is presented more as a businessman than a crime boss (though these days the two roles aren’t so dissimilar); for most of the movie he sits in a darkened office poring over balance sheets. It’s a given that he’s a hard man, but it’s a subtler performance from Bean than might be expected, and even when the expected outburst of violence occurs towards the movie’s end, it’s a tribute to Young’s script – and Bean as well – that Frank doesn’t just become a psycho with a gun. Equally memorable is Temple’s performance as drug-addled Donny, a man who recognises the dead end his life has become, and who clings to Hannah’s offer of a new life with a mixture of childish hope and diminished longing.

In comparison, Purefoy has the harder task of making Owens’ passivity credible, and it’s not until he makes an unexpected confession to Hannah that his reluctance to engage with Frank is fully understood. It’s a difficult role, and one of the few areas where the script doesn’t entirely convince, but Purefoy is such a good actor that he never quite loses the credibility the character needs. Amber is a secondary character, a little naive but with a good heart even if she and Hannah are at loggerheads like most sisters, and Vega brings a confidence to the role that makes Amber both level-headed and hopelessly romantic at the same time. As Bobby, Busey has the most generic role, that of slow-thinking muscle to Frank’s brains, but imbues the character with a kind of nervous puppy energy that makes Bobby scarily unpredictable.

The small-town milieu is well represented by a handful of recurring locations, and there’s an emotive score courtesy of Elia Cmiral. Young shows a liking for low-level camerawork which allows for several shots to stand out in terms of space and composition, and the violence, when it comes, is almost casually brutal yet effective. All in all, Wicked Blood is a well-paced drama whose only drawbacks are its predictability and its repeated use of chess as a metaphor for life, but thanks to Young’s assured handling of the material as a whole, it remains absorbing and potent throughout.

Rating: 7/10 – a well-worn idea given a spirited interpretation by Young, and bolstered by strong turns from its cast, Wicked Blood has a quiet, slow burn intensity that works well; easy to overlook considering how many other low-key crime dramas are out there, but definitely worth a look, and a rewarding one at that.