Hallam Foe
Director: David Mackenzie. Cast: Jamie Bell, Sophia Myles, Claire Forlani, Ciarán Hinds, Lucy Holt, Jamie Sives, Maurice Roëves, Ewen Bremner, Kirsty Shepheard. Screenplay: David Mackenzie and Ed Whitmore (based on the novel by Peter Jinks).



Photo © 2007 Scottish Screen/Ingenious Film Partners
I saw this film at the 2007 Chicago Film Festival under its original title and will continue to designate it as such. For U.S. audiences, during its Fall 2008 release, the movie has been retitled Mister Foe, but I cannot think why: the new title loses its odd flavor while gaining nothing in the directions of clarity, poetry, or meaning.
David Mackenzie is back to some of his Young Adam tricks in Hallam Foe, and once again, the most riddlesome tricks of all are a) how he gets the movie to spring as excitingly as it does from a sketchy story with significant limitations, and b) why the movie fails to work a little better despite all the evident and encouraging talent involved. Hallam Foe orbits around the twin suns of Collision and Surveillance, as encapsulated in the opening sequence that starts with the title character (Jamie Bell) squatting in his treehouse to spy on his sister, who at that moment is taking an amorous roll in the glade with her boyfriend. After streaking himself up with some "barbarous" makeup and a makeshift headdress made of a badger hide, Hallam war-whoops his way down a pulley-and-cord contraption and crashes right into the humiliated lovers. The whole sequence, improbable in incident and choreography, serves primarily to acquaint us with Hallam Foe's bold and peculiar experiments in exaggerated reality. As befits a film about an incorrigible peeping tom, Hallam Foe is full of point-of-view shots and furtive, handheld pokes around corners and to the sides of various barriers. Just as markedly, however, but with much more distinctive formal panache, Mackenzie and cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (The Deep End) perpetually shuttle Hallam in and out of strong but strikingly different lighting schemes, soundscapes, and color patterns. Though these contrasts and effects occasionally spill into overstatement—trains that sound like entire artillery brigades, saturated colors and overexposed light to signal big emotional climaxes—Hallam Foe cannot be accused of concealing its investment in the dramatic heightening of sensation, the privileging of psychic logic and hormonal pulls over safer and more quotidian forms of "realistic" storytelling. Indeed, the film's evocation of Hallam's jumpy and inchoate overstimulation is its sustaining badge of craftsmanship and creative vivacity.

Mackenzie and Nuttgens complicate scenes with their atmospheric choices—say, by warming up a wormy act of breaking and entering with a soft, orange aura, or by splaying Hallam's improbable glee in his job as a hotel kitchen porter against the harsh, clanking cacophonies and the glacial blues and greens of the workspace. Ace editor Colin Monie (The Magdalene Sisters) also jives to the film's kaleidoscopic moods and abrupt flights and drops in tone, hurtling Hallam straight out of that illicit, amber-colored prowl inside his boss's apartment and onto the gunmetal gray and unwelcoming lines of the rooftops, and playing up the mundane but nonetheless schizophrenic transition from the riotous hotel kitchen to the relentless sterility and soft hums of the residence corridors. Emphatically a film of sounds as much as one of images and plot predicaments, Hallam Foe's eclectic and energetic song score offers a rich, restive portrait of the boy's inner life while also drawing out the flavor and personality of the sidewalks, street corners, bars, offices, restaurants, woodlands, living rooms, even the alleyways, eaves, and attics where Hallam skulks around and incubates his obscure, compulsive plans for love, for work, for revenge upon a hobbled father (Ciarán Hinds) and a sexy, conniving stepmother (Claire Forlani) who twitch at his presence in their home even as they also fret over his sudden and mysterious absconding amid charges of conspiracy and murder. Then again, that naked grapple with Stepmom inside his own treehouse, where a 6' composite image of his late mother's face was so recently vandalized and torn down, can't be coincidental to Hallam's urge to hotfoot his way out of town. No less coincidental is his happenstance excavation of his mother's old rowboat, dredged up from the bottom of the lake in the background of an extraordinary shallow-focus shot, and revealed to have some very worrisome hammer-shaped holes in the bottom of the hull.

Hallam Foe's narrative remains addicted to this register of lurid implication and portentous incident, even as it spins itself in several new directions after Hallam's arrival in Edinburgh—where, among other things, he stalks and then wheedles a job from Kate (Sophia Myles), the first pretty blonde he sees, and one who also happens to be a dead ringer for his dead mum. The better to supervise her in the creepiest and most art-direction-friendly of ways, homeless Hallam nests himself up in the clocktower of his hotel, affording himself a panoptical vantage on half the city although he persists in only having eyes for Kate, no matter whether she's clipping her toe-nails or practicing her kickboxing or engaging in kinetically lusty sex with Alasdair (Jamie Sives), a virile and cruel middle-manager at the hotel. As Hallam grows more attached to Kate, both in ways she knows about (with a possibly mutual attraction) and in ways she doesn't (with the inevitable likelihood of exposure and furious conflict), his mind sort of wanders from the duplicitous erotic tangle back home, except that his hunger for lookalike Kate is never far from his hunger for his mother(s) and his anger at his dad. Plus, Stepmom won't stay gone forever. And in a film so hostile to repression, where crushes turn into nocturnal stakeouts and emotional tremors wash across the screen in technicolor and in stereo, the story behind that sunken boat won't stay drowned for long.

Sequences in Hallam Foe are often exemplary and unnerving, and not just in their formal precision. By the time Hallam and Kate finally get looser and cozier with each other, starting at a spontaneous birthday party from which Hallam's usually unflappable colleague Andy stalks off in jealous disgust, both Jamie Bell and Sophia Myles have developed their characters with such flexible tempers and natural charisma that even the most forced and writerly aspects of their relationship are dramatically, even humanly persuasive. Trainspotting's Ewen Bremner is a comic treat as Andy, timing his speeches and jokes to his own halting rhythm that adds to the riffy, unsteady power of the film. The Alasdair thread rides most impressively up and down a scale that starts with fairly standard-issue menace, then surges with real sexual force, then loops on itself with delicious, succinct cunning on Hallam's part and an almost merry sense of fuck-you humor from Alasdair, who tussles all the more exuberantly with Kate once he knows that her pining, probably virginal admirer is watching. Bell is no stranger to this style of heightened filmmaking, having shown himself to such distinction in David Gordon Green's Undertow a few years ago, and as in that film, his spry physicality serves the restless energy of the movie while also drawing out the interior states of a deeply conflicted and disillusioned character.

All the same, Bell's game and rangy performance sometimes articulates itself in loose, unfocused improvisation. Like Emile Hirsch in Into the Wild, Bell is a promising but still-beginning actor cast in a very difficult role, and both of their directors are so enamored of their performances—and even more so with philosophical ideas about their characters—that "discipline" and "depth" are not always the best ways to describe their narrative or psychological characterizations. If Hallam Foe is a more surprising film than Into the Wild, and Hallam himself a less predictable character in the sense that his motives are so much more choked, erratic, and self-critical than those of Chris McCandless, and if the film's agenda in following Hallam's movements is so much more obscure, it's also true that Hallam Foe attaches itself to a vaguer and more narrow swath of psychic and intellectual experience than Into the Wild does. More often than I wish, Hallam Foe feels attached to precious little beyond its own stylized self-assembly and its own tensions between formal organization and splatter-painted emotional states. Among his many stages of experience and levels of self-identity, Hallam as Wild Child, smearing himself with mud and dye and manifesting such febrile resistance to basic socialization, is by far the least sure-footed, in conception as well as expression. Mackenzie stitches Hallam's most unruly urges in this vein to his fascination with his mother, and when Hallam isn't signaling to Kate that he'd like to see her wear his dead mother's clothes (a desire she intuitively susses out and proposes so that he won't have to), he's just as liable to sport that dress himself. A certain kind of thematic sense inheres here, but in its most desultory moments, Hallam Foe fuses so many forms of idiosyncracy and rebel energy—psychological, sexual, criminal, generational, urban, narrative, stylistic—that crucial distinctions among them recede too far, and the film's ideas about any of them have to struggle for basic coherence. This predicament feels familiar from Young Adam, another movie that marshaled formal and atmospheric finesse and a strong acting ensemble (in fact, an even stronger one) without ever quite certifying why this story or this persona holds so much fascination for the filmmakers, much less for the audience. Both films also have a misogyny problem that is hard to explain away in any other terms; beyond its unwanted invocations of the lamest, dreariest images in middle-grade genre fare like What Lies Beneath, the scene where Hallam gags and hog-ties his stepmother and jettisons her in the bottom of a loch has all of the histrionically nasty charge of that outlandish and degrading food-sex sequence between Ewan McGregor and Emily Mortimer in Young Adam.

If Hallam Foe possessed itself of tighter narrative and psychological parameters, and its climaxes felt more equal in scope and in emotional heft to the film that has conveyed us toward them, the movie might amass the charge of Jacques Audiard's Read My Lips or The Beat that My Heart Skipped, whose sensory richness and offbeat character studies and enervating suspense Hallam Foe otherwise shares. David Mackenzie may yet emerge as an artist of Audiard's caliber, comparably able to swell grimy pop scenarios into fully engrossing exercises in expressionism. His style and temperament certainly allow for our hopes of growth and revelation, and I will await the next Mackenzie film with even more optimism than I did this one, especially if he tables the motifs of enigmatic masculinity and debased femininity that, at present, are perhaps confining and coarsening his creativity as much as they are relieving it. Nonetheless, Hallam Foe sports more spirit and confidence of execution than most films I have seen this year, and whatever the attendant inconsistencies, I admired and enjoyed its ability to privilege sound, color, angle, rhythm, performance, and plot as the engines of different sequences and still have so many of them work so provocatively well. I don't know what's going on in Scottish film schools and art culture that's enabling or inspiring Mackenzie, Lynne Ramsay, Andrea Arnold, and others to press so far into film's graphic and sonic capacities and its many thrilling potentials, and I don't have to know, as long as they keep up the exciting work. B


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