Directed by Sam Jones Starring George Somner, Olivia Barrowclough, Jarreau Benjamin Short Film Review by Andrew Young
Following on from the festival success of the BFI-funded Lifeline, Manchester filmmaker Sam Jones, still a young and eye-catchingly prodigious talent, has returned with another compelling and visually audacious short. Big Night is an impressive look at underground drug culture through the events of one night in some dingy nightclub toilets. It showcases great skill across the board and indicates growth in Jones as a filmmaker, yet still remains a bit rough around the edges.
Unlike the high-minded dystopian narrative of Lifeline, this short has a much leaner, more focussed plot. At just 10 minutes, much of it plays like one long scene, as young David, clearly not a man enjoying the pulsating beats of the club, tries to procure more drugs from sadistic dealer Creecher in an attempt to continue his escapism. He is a desperate character, somebody for whom party drugs have become more like I-need-these-to-forget-my-problems drugs. A sly Oliver Twist reference early on is indicative of the vulnerability he carries through the film.
Unlike on Lifeline, Jones this time works from someone else’s script, namely the fantastic Kate Collins. Big on ideas and visually striking, Lifeline announced Jones’ talent but its weakness came in its occasionally clunky dialogue; this is a fault that has been rectified by the wise move of working with Collins. This is a short that stands out from the crowd in the way it revels in its words. It is a film that wants to have its characters talking because they are so damn good to listen to. This is mostly true of Creech, played by an electric Olivia Barrowclough. She spits and snarls her way through her confrontation with David, leaving some scorn in reserve for stuttering assistant Budgie.
The script isn’t just a vehicle for clever dialogue, however, it also contains some interesting comment on the characters’ psyches. Most obvious is David’s struggle with drugs and the motivation behind it. Quite why David has ended up this way is not expanded upon, keeping the film tightly focussed in its short running time. However, the strong closing shots followed by a bold, simple title card hint at his wider life and the implications of the film. This is a “Big Night” not in the hedonistic sense, but a turning point in David’s wayward life.
More interesting however, and something perhaps less obvious to explore, is Creecher’s mentality. It is both funny and chilling to watch her lecture David on the unsustainability of his lifestyle as if she is his mother or a responsible business owner. She appears to thrive on this power, lecturing and taunting David rather than ever actually caring about the money he owes her. But then, her revelling in power is disrupted as the initially timid Budgie tells her that she is being unrealistic. She needs David’s money but instead she is too focussed on her sadistic abuse to get it. This one moment does a lot to deepen the film and shift the audience’s viewpoint. The nasty drug dealer needs the money too – why? Maybe she has turned to it out of desperation, maybe her upbringing led her into it The Wire-style. Alternatively, or perhaps additionally, Creech forgets the value of money because she is having such a thrill playing with David. She too is an addict, high on power and abuse. At one point she points a knife at David but then swaps it for drugs, because she knows it will hurt him more; it is a cunning move in a game she so clearly wants to win.
It is in these scenes, where Barrowclough is chewing the scenery and George Somner looks more and more desperate, stopping just short of a complete lack of inner steel, that the film fizzes the most. This is not just down to the script, however. Somner and Barrowclough give strong performances, continuing Jones’ liking of both finding and developing talented actors. These scenes are enthralling, too, for their visual skill. As we saw in Lifeline, Sam Jones has a confidence to his filmmaking that brings bold, memorable imagery to the screen. In these scenes of confrontation, he plays with light and framing and brings a kinetic style similar to Danny Boyle’s fellow drug-drama Trainspotting. The marriage of script and aesthetics here sees Jones in his element.
Where the film falters somewhat, is as it moves on from its central conflict and into more surreal territory. It is without doubt and ambitious and impressively made staging of David’s headspace, but it slips into being a bit indulgent and unfocused. Jones works well with DP Adam Grasso and editor Pip Watkins to create a throbbing club and a film that is constantly visually exciting, particularly when combined with the efforts of William Chapman and Modl in the sound and music departments. Big Night never stops being both compelling and intriguing, but it is at its best when Jones’ flair is constrained to an extent.
Nevertheless, this is a strong entry into the careers of all involved. Big Night is a thrilling film that also manages to make neat, complex comment on underground drug culture whilst positing an interesting angle on the psychology of a drug dealer. It may not be perfection, but the wit and invention of Kate Collins and Sam Jones shine through wonderfully.