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aka The Hitman’s Apprentice

D: Craig Viveiros / 86m

Cast: Tim Roth, Jack O’Connell, Tallulah Riley, Peter Mullan, Kierston Wareing, Tomi May

Adam (O’Connell) is a nineteen year old Jack-the-lad who lives with his mum, Nicky (Wareing), and her shady businessman boyfriend, Peter (Mullan). When Adam totals one of Peter’s cars, he’s offered a chance to pay the debt he owes: he’s to drive one of Peter’s associates, Roy (Roth), around for a day. They journey to Northumberland, where, deep in the woods they find a caravan where a man called Danil (May) is hiding out. Roy kills him, but as they attempt to make his death look like the work of local serial killer, the Handyman, a young woman (Riley) comes along. She manages to get away from them, and with a bag that contains evidence of what Roy and Adam have done. What follows is a game of cat and mouse that sees the pair trying to retrieve the bag, while the young woman stays ahead of them every step of the way. Before long, Adam learns things about Roy, Peter, and the young woman, that cause him to realise that not everything is as it seems, and that his future depends on the decisions he makes when the truth reveals itself…

A deliberately low-key crime thriller with an acerbic sense of humour, The Liability begins with a subtle clue as to the criminal activity that sits at the heart of the narrative. A man watches as a container is washed out; moments later he’s attacked and killed in his car. He’s the latest victim of the Handyman, and it’s a testament to the efficiency of John Wrathall’s economical screenplay that the identity of this killer and Roy’s despatching of Danil is connected by a generous helping of unexpected irony. It’s surprising moments such as these, where the material plumbs unforeseen depths, that help make The Liability a much more entertaining movie than might be expected. Add in the material’s quirky, often droll line in mirth (Roth and O’Connell do more with a glance than some actors can manage with a three-page monologue), and you have a black comedy thriller that knows when to be serious, when to be uncomfortable, and when to be slyly humorous. It’s not a balancing act that the movie pulls off every time, but it succeeds more than it fails.

The central relationship between the garrulous, over-eager Adam and the more taciturn, fatalistic Roy drives the movie forward, as mutual respect is established, and a degree of inter-dependency grows between them. Roth and O’Connell are a terrific combination, and the way they play off each other, especially in their early scenes together, ensures their characters’ relationship carries a greater weight later on in the movie. Alas, while Adam and Roy grow as characters and invite sympathy and compassion (despite their actions), the same can’t be said for the likes of Mullan’s one-note bad guy, or Riley’s less than innocent backpacker. Both roles suffer thanks to being painted with too broad brush strokes, and their presence offers little in relation to the material featuring Adam and Roy. That said, Viveiros (making only his second feature) shows a deftness of touch that aids the movie tremendously, and he maintains a consistently weary, yet effective tone throughout. The natural beauty of the Northumberland and Teesside locations are muted in order to match the mood of the piece, and James Friend’s cinematography – all dark hues and glowering skies – complements the darker aspects of the narrative. The ending, though, lacks the punch that’s needed to make it work properly – which is disappointing – and it’s further hampered by feeling rushed. But up until then, this is one movie that provides plenty of cinematic nourishment.

Rating: 8/10 – sombre and mournful in places, and yet funny and warm-hearted in others, The Liability isn’t just the standard crime thriller with jokes that it appears to be; an under-rated gem, it’s well worth checking out as an alternative to the East End gangster movies that populate so much of the UK’s crime-based output.