The title may be “The Legend of Barney Thomson,” but it’s the protagonist’s near-namesake, Emma Thompson, who earns all the glory in Scottish star Robert Carlyle’s amiably uneven directorial debut. Drawn from the off-kilter comic novels of Douglas Lindsay, this grisly farce finds the helmer giving himself a generous showcase as the eponymous chump, a socially inept barber who quite accidentally becomes a modern-day Sweeney Todd. Still, it’s Thompson’s frayed, frightening turn as his unexpectedly devious mother that gives a salty kick to an otherwise minor diversion, in which simple twists of fate are as thickly matted as the characters’ Glaswegian brogues. A crowd-pleasing curtain-raiser for this year’s Edinburgh fest, “Barney Thomson” is unlikely to secure legendary status beyond Caledonia, but ancillary prospects are solid enough.
“This is the story of what happens when you move chairs,” Carlyle says, in cheerily cryptic fashion, in a chatty introductory voiceover that could be plucked from any number of innocuous Britcoms (or Scotcoms, for the sake of specificity). Yet his film announces somewhat darker intentions upfront, with a stomach-knotting closeup of a severed penis that may send more delicate viewers packing before the opening credits are complete. (Those non-British viewers who stay, meanwhile, may require occasional subtitles for the thistle-tongued dialogue.)
Ambitiously attempting to marry the tones of edgier Ealing comedy with early-era Coen brothers, “Barney Thomson” only sporadically pulls off the blithe absurdism of either; though the whole odd package is frequently amusing, it’s too fussily composed and claustrophobically plotted to look easy. Fabian Wagner’s widescreen lensing goes heavy on queasy angles and dusty filters; Antony Genn and Martin Slattery’s striking score, alternately merry and baroque, can be a tad heavy for the room. When Barney’s barbershop superior Wullie (Stephen McCole) criticizes him for his poor customer skills — “You have no banter … you hang over them like a haunted tree” — it’s as apt a description of the film’s own funny-queasy energy.
The aforementioned phallus is one of many neatly cleaved body parts sent to the police by an unidentified serial killer on the loose in working-class Glasgow. With gruff detective Holdall (Ray Winstone), a Londoner regarded with hostility by his Scots colleagues, having failed to turn up even the faintest lead, panic is setting in among the police and public alike. It’s a particularly bad time, then, for Barney to start unintentionally bumping people off: After Wullie fires him and the ensuing confrontation turns fatal, the dead man’s disappearance causes Holdall to seize hungrily upon Barney as a suspect. The bumbling murderer would give himself away far sooner, too, if not for the no-nonsense intervention of his affection-averse mother Cemolina (Thompson), a garish, bingo-loving battle ax who, upon seeing her son’s inept attempts to cover his tracks, thinks nothing of calmly dismembering the corpse and stashing it in her deep-freeze. (A model of domestic efficiency, she even labels the pieces: “I label everything,” Thompson hisses, scoring the pic’s heartiest laugh.)
That’s scarcely half the story, however, as Barney — seemingly now wielding death in his scissor-happy fingertips, and making career gains as a result — somehow stumbles into another murder, while his path crosses surprisingly with that of the Glasgow killer. Meanwhile, workplace tensions between Holdall and his by-the-book, anti-British colleague Robertson (an amped-up Ashley Jensen) turn nearly as heated as they are in the barbershop. Never dull at 96 minutes, the film instead risks feeling overstuffed. A climactic standoff that should rep the film’s apex of comedic chaos is rushed along amid the general carnage, much of it incidental to the unsettling, peculiarly touching mother-son story that gives the film its admittedly blackened heart.
Though Carlyle’s hand-picked ensemble (which also includes Martin Compston as a fellow barber and an underused Tom Courtenay as a frazzled police chief) commits to the shenanigans with considerable good humor, only Thompson locates a deeper, stranger nerve in the material. Clad in moth-eaten fake furs that bring to mind Scarlett Johansson’s Glasgow wanderer from “Under the Skin,” only gone most severely to seed, she plays Cemolina with a broad, wheezing vulgarity that feels less like an actress’s against-type indulgence than the everyday spiel of a character embittered by compacted decades of disappointment.
Not since Angelina Jolie bore Colin Farrell in Oliver Stone’s “Alexander” have two actors been so improbably cast as mother and son, but “Barney Thomson” just about gets away with it thanks to its leads’ appropriately uneasy rapport. Though Thompson is only two years older than Carlyle, costume designer Sharon Long and Oscar-winning makeup whiz Mark Coulier — who so stunningly aged Tilda Swinton for “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and Meryl Streep for “The Iron Lady” — pitch her look perfectly between the character’s age and her mutton-as-lamb delusions. A film freed from its source material and focused squarely on Cemolina might have been truly special; as it is, Thompson elevates and enervates every scene she’s in.