A creepy security guard blackmails a wealthy kleptomaniac in “A Patch of Fog,” a low-stakes, low-budget, low-yield thriller that attempts to turn a straightforward stalking case into a twisted story of friendship and mutual loneliness. Conleth Hill (Lord Varys on “Game of Thrones”) and Stephen Graham (Al Capone on “Boardwalk Empire”) are up to the task, but first-time feature director Michael Lennox has trouble making sense of a relationship that vacillates between bromance and sociopathy. There’s a good movie here about the peculiar bond between men of different social strata, but Lennox and his screenwriters, John Cairns and Michael McCartney, never quite locate it. Prospects for wide distribution outside the U.K. are similarly murky.
Fresh off last year’s Oscar-nominated short “Boogaloo and Graham,” Lennox takes baby steps into features with this simple, noir-tinged pas de deux, which relies mostly on the evolving relationship between these two men and the skilled actors who play them. Twenty years after publishing the eponymous novel, Sandy Duffy (Hill) is still coasting on his literary stardom, rebuffing calls for a follow-up while appearing regularly as a commentator on a panel show and teaching creative writing at a university. Sandy lives in a sleek modern house and drives a Mercedes Benz, but he’s willing to risk it all for the illicit thrill of shoplifting petty items — cheap jewelry, a paperweight, some aftershave, etc.
When Robert (Graham), a department-store security guard, finally catches Sandy in the act, he agrees not to alert the authorities if Sandy will meet him for drinks. The author grudgingly obliges with a couple of beers and some awkward small talk, but Robert won’t give up the surveillance footage that easily. He wants their fake friendship to blossom into a real one, but trust is an obvious barrier between the two. So begins an escalating series of events wherein Sandy tries to wriggle away from Robert’s blackmail scheme and Robert retaliates in kind, including going after the panel host (Lara Pulver) Sandy is seeing on the side.
For all these two men’s class differences, “A Patch of Fog” makes persistent attempts to tie them together, until it finally does so literally. Sandy’s book turns on a symbolic incident where his agoraphobic father lost him in the fog, and when Robert takes him to the train tracks to flatten pennies together, it’s like they’re both reliving lost childhoods. Graham is particularly good at giving his stalker a genuine innocence, even if the film has trouble deciding, almost scene by scene, whether he’s dangerously unhinged or a social misfit in desperate need of a friend. There’s something poignant about Robert harboring the delusion that a connection can be forged in captivity.
“A Patch of Fog” has more difficulty dealing with the source of Sandy’s kleptomania and the secret that might surface if he’s exposed, perhaps because it leaves less to suggestion. But the bigger problem is that it’s hard to believe a blackmail scheme over a petty crime could turn into such a raging brush fire, because the stakes are so minimal from the start. Sandy is guilty of slipping pens and paperweights into his jacket, not heisting the crown jewels. The film recognizes that to a point, and tries to reveal how flaws in his character turn an embarrassing situation into a life-threatening one, but it can’t sell the progression.
On a limited budget, d.p. Matthias Pilz does what he can to make the title literal, blanketing Sandy and Robert’s private lives in a ceaseless pallor. But there’s never so much fog that one can’t see right through it.