To label a director’s first feature as a “learning experience” or a “test run” often screams of condescension, but debutante writer-director Rowan Athale’s Toronto entry “Wasteland” can be so described with no malice intended. It’s an overlong Northern British heist caper with a wildly uneven tone and a needlessly scrambled narrative, but it suggests a higher intelligence beneath, waiting to flower down the road. Though its miniature reunion of “Harry Potter” thesps Timothy Spall and Matthew Lewis could draw some attention, play will likely be limited to fests and the U.K.
Opening abruptly on the battered, bloodied face of twentysomething hero Harvey (Luke Treadaway), “Wasteland” introduces its “Usual Suspects”-esque framing device, which will prove to be the first of several narrative overcomplications. Harvey has been picked up after an unspecified row, his victim is lying in a hospital nearby, and an interrogating detective (Spall) wants to hear his side of the story.
Flash back to six weeks earlier, as Harvey is just leaving prison after serving a drug charge, rejoining his best mates: sardonic Dempsey (Iwan Rheon), meek Charlie (Gerard Kearns) and bleary pub-crawler Dodd (Lewis). With career options limited in post-industrial Yorkshire, the boys are game when Harvey spills his post-internment plans: A prison buddy from Amsterdam is set to open a “coffee” shop in the city, and has offered Harvey a partnership. To secure the investment money, however, the boys will need to rob a local working men’s club while avoiding the attention of sinister heavy Roper (Neil Maskell, more directly threatening and therefore much less scary than he was in last year’s “Kill List”), who put Harvey in jail in the first place.
It’s a simple premise, and Athale gets far on the heavy atmosphere of the local environs (the city is so damp and gray that even indoor sequences feel fogged over) and the sweetly vulgar, if almost subtitle-requiring, banter between the boys. But an air of overfamiliarity hangs heavily over these proceedings, the denouement is abjectly nonsensical, and Athale gets in trouble when he tries to stretch things too far.
An attempted Guy Ritchie-style montage of Roper’s crimes, for example, feels entirely unnecessary — a stock thug character doesn’t need to have the intricacies of his garden-variety thuggishness painstakingly detailed onscreen — and several abruptly applied splashes of backstory feel like glimpses into otherwise excised subplots from the script’s first draft.
Nonetheless, Athale does have an eye for memorable staging, his cast seems comfortable, and the film’s ostensibly tossed-off romantic subplot (featuring the sternly beautiful Vanessa Kirby) comes off better than one might expect. Technical specs are all clearly of a budget but work well enough. Ambient score from Neil Athale is impressively intuitive on the whole, though it does revert to tired Tomanandy-style techno-rock in some of the action sequences.