Though it’s hardly a fun night out at the movies, grungy, Gotham-set “WAZ” reps a mightily impressive feature debut by Brit TV helmer Tom Shankland that should put him on Tinseltown’s Rolodexes. Pedal-to-the-metal combo of serial-killer crimer and blood-soaked hell-ride tips its hat to classics like “Seven” and current gorefests like “Saw,” but carves its own genre identity by adding a smidgen of heart. Strong Euro flavor (in not spelling everything out) and largely fake setting (pic was mostly shot in Belfast with a non-American cast) may limit its appeal Stateside, but at a sheer technical level, “WAZ” distastefully delivers.
Script by TV writer Clive Bradley was inspired by the so-called Price equation, which begins with the letters W-Delta-Z (title appears with the Delta symbol in the film, though it’s been simplified in common usage to “WAZ”). None of this is known to city cop Eddie Argo (Stellan Skarsgard) and his new assistant — cute, ponytailed Helen Westcott (Aussie thesp Melissa George) — when they’re called out to see two horribly mutilated bodies near the docks one night. One is gang leader Jemal; the other is an electrocuted woman with “WAZ” carved on her pregnant belly.
Eddie suspects rival gang leader and all-around crackhead Pierre Jackson (rising Brit actor Tom Hardy), since the woman was the girlfriend of Wesley, one of Pierre’s gang members. But Wesley’s found slaughtered, as well as his twin brother.
Only when the cops track down the anesthetic used in the executions do they hear about the Price equation from a lab scientist, Dr. Gelb (Paul Kaye). In one of several leaps of logic that pepper the script — but are largely rendered immaterial by Shankland’s roller-coaster direction — Eddie and Helen ascertain that in each pair of victims, one was forced to kill the other (a loved one) to stop being tortured.
Eddie suspects Jean Lerner (Selma Blair), who once worked at Gelb’s lab and was greatly affected by learning about the Price equation. She’s now testing its efficacy by kidnapping members of Pierre’s gang, with whom she has unfinished business.
In its first hour, the pic covers a lot of ground — and several large script potholes — until Jean is first seen onscreen, torturing Pierre in a horrific basement Ed Gein would have been proud to own. But just as the motor to the drama is not whodunit but whydunit, so Jean is portrayed more as a reluctant serial killer than one who gets off on the violence. Downplaying the role, Blair, the only Yank in a leading part, is very effective in an offhand way.
An unexpected plot revelation not only brings Eddie to the center of the drama but also, in a neat twist, helps Jean test the efficacy of the Price equation once and for all.
Growling his way through the lead role as if he’d swallowed a plate of gravel, Skarsgard comes perilously close to parodying a hardboiled New York cop, more ’70s than 21st century. As a typical perky greenhorn (and providing some visual relief from all the Stygian goings-on), George’s Helen is also cut from the same comicbook. However, both actors grow in their roles, along with Waters, whose Daniel comes to take a central role in the drama.
All thesps are carried along by Shankland’s pacey direction, aided by restless handheld photography by Danish d.p. Morten Soborg (“Pusher”) and tight-as-a-drum cutting by Tim Murrell. Lugubrious score by David Julyan is a further atmosphere-builder.
Sound could be improved, as a fair chunk of the dialogue is difficult to make out. Transfer from HD to widescreen 35mm is excellent, the cold colors fitting the story.