"Takes a frank look at the youth offenders system and delves into unreported themes, offering an insight into a culture unbeknown to many of us..."
As the London riots swept fear over the capital city last summer, I was instead concerned that such an unforgettable set of events would eventually result in a host of lacklustre films, made by opportunists simply looking to take advantage of the whole situation and exploit the riots for some easy money. And lo and behold one year on comes Offender, a film loosely based around the riots - yet any such apprehensions I had felt have since been dispelled, as Ron Scalpello's début feature uses such occurrences to great effect, in what proves to be a brilliantly harrowing British thriller.
We follow the story of Tommy (Joe Cole) - a seemingly reserved and composed young man, who deliberately starts a fight with the police to willingly earn him a prison sentence in a youth offenders institute. His motive? To seek revenge.
Following a murder taking place at the London riots at the hands of local thugs Jake (English Frank) and Mason (Tyson Oba), Elise (Kimberley Nixon) - Tommy's girlfriend - overhears a conversation between the two about the fatal incident. Now a potential witness to the crime, they decide to attack her, causing her to miscarry Tommy's unborn child. Tommy then intentionally lands himself a sentence at the youth offenders institute with the sole purpose of getting revenge on those who attacked his partner and killed his child, and no matter how notorious or dangerous these people are, Tommy won't stop until he gets what he wants...
As the London streets evolve, cinema must adapt to remain reflective of such changes, and long gone are the days of the Guy Ritchie cockney-thriller. Now it's youths with attitudes (and guns...) and the likes of Attack the Block, Ill Manors and now Offender are reflecting a more contemporary society, and doing so to great effect. Scalpello has presented a picture that delves into the harsh realities of urban life in London, but does so against a captivating and somewhat traditional cinematic revenge plot - a premise which always excites me.
Conventional in its approach, we follow the story of one man against many - a story of the underdog. We follow a direct path too; there may be a handful of sub-plots but we don't truly deviate away from the initial narrative. The revenge plot works well as it allows the audience to live out their own fantasies through this film, as we're able to get that thrill of seeing people we despise face their comeuppance. Effectively, we shouldn't actually like Tommy as he's a violent thug, but one you just can't help but root for.
In order to get behind Tommy we rely heavily on the performance of Cole, and he is absolutely fantastic. His depiction of blind rage and unconditional hatred is so well portrayed. It can often be somewhat cringe-worthy when actors have to act angry and mad, but Cole does so with such conviction and the pain is there for all to see, particularly within his eyes - essential for him to get right as he hasn't got the physical presence to provide the fear he installs in his adversaries.
Performances across the board are strong too, not only from our lead roles but from the likes of Scorcher, Malachi Kirby and Shaun Dooley. The other stand out performance is by English Frank as our lead antagonist, portraying a savage and fearful character. My only issue, however, is although he is brilliant, the casting does seem somewhat askew as he looks around 35 years of age. Seeing him in a youth offenders institute is a bit like watching Billy Madison.
Despite the vast array of positives to be taken from this picture, Scalpello can be accused of perhaps attempting too much, particularly within the more artistic scenes between Tommy and Elise. Offender is a gritty, realistic thriller and should stick to being just that. It works best when there is drum and bass music playing and the energy kicks in, and the mawkish romantic scenes between the couple simply feels out of place, and entirely superfluous.
Offender has more to it than meets the eye, and if you can look past the stereotypical "urban drama" tag which exists, here lies a gripping and entertaining feature film, and one that takes a frank look at the youth offenders system and delves into unreported themes, offering an insight into a culture unbeknown to many of us. It may not be in the same league as A Prophet, but it deserves the right to be mentioned in the same breath, which is a triumph in itself.