though the film is tough, harsh, and unflinching, it does also have an undeniable beating heart, a conscience, a soul. That doesn’t make the darkness easier to deal with – in fact, it’s part of what makes much of it so hard to watch
Derelict – a Response
Don’t get me wrong. I love music, movies, books, TV, comics, on and on. And I’m an enthusiast – as I often say, I start more than I finish, and I finish more than I review, but even given that, I go in looking for what’s good rather than what’s bad or wrong. I spend a lot of time reading work by indie and self-published writers in particular – and not all of it floats my boat, and my basic philosophy is that nobody needs help not selling books, so if I don’t dig it, I keep that to myself – but if something does hit me, it’s a good exercise to try and work out why, and the page is where I tend to find that process for working out works best (tho I’m not adverse to the odd podcast, too).
I’m saying all this because I don’t want to give a false impression about my review work here. Looking back over the last year and a bit, I can see Banshees of Inisherin and The Menu both generated an essay’s worth of thought, and quite right too. I admire both those movies a great deal, and I may actually love The Menu… but I’m not sure I fell in love with it, if you can grok the distinction. Maybe I fell in love with the cheeseburger at the end, but that’s not quite the same thing.
I can’t remember the last time a movie made me feel… adrift. Like there’s a before and after the viewing experience. I sure as shit can’t remember the last time a movie did enough of a number on me that I fucking dreamt about it.
Until last night, when I saw Derelict for the first time.
Derelict is an independent movie, directed by Jonathan Zaurin, and written by Kat Ellinger, Michael Makenzie, Tod Rodgers, Jonathan Zaurin, and Sara Zaurin. And it’s… Well, nominally, it’s a crime movie. In fact, it’s one of my favourite sub-genres of crime movie, the revenge story. Our protagonist, Abigail, is a 30-something woman living in a rough estate, a life lived in monochrome since her father was violently tortured and murdered ten years ago. In the first ten minutes of the movie, we learn from her mostly estranged sister that one of the murderers is set to be released. And it’s clear from Abigial’s reaction to the news that she’s planning her own form of justice for the parolee.
There are early signs
that the narrative is going to play out a little differently from traditional expectations; there’s an undeniable artfulness to the cinematography, an emotional intelligence to the acting, filming, and editing that’s already cutting against the ‘fuck, yeah’ macho quality such stories often evoke, alongside an initial delicacy around the crime against the father that’s the opposite of the often puerile ‘victim/violence porn’ such movies can evoke (Death Wish is kinda ground zero, I guess, but there’s plenty of examples down the decades, including one of my favourites of the genre, The Brave One).
Although having a female lead doesn’t guarantee that such tropes will be entirely avoided, Suzanne Fulton manages to subvert most expectations in her opening scenes. Suzanne is clearly damaged, tough, and experiencing ongoing trauma. At the same time, she is vulnerable and dangerous. Her performance is staggering, and it only grows in stature as the film’s narrative develops. Although the old onion metaphor is tempting, it’s not quite right because all the elements of Abigail’s character and trauma response are present to some degree or another most of the time. It’s just that certain aspects are driven more to the surface by a combination of circumstance and will.
The performance by Fulton exemplifies the movie as a whole since both acknowledge and address psychological, emotional, and physical realities. Derelict showcases that people get hurt, and when it happens, the pain lingers. Furthermore, it refrains from falling into overused tropes and cliches. If you allow me a brief personal digression, it also touched upon a sensitive topic that has always bothered me as a fan of the revenge genre
See, I know the reason I love this genre of movie, even a lot of the “brainless” and/or “bad” ones (I think the Taken series, especially parts 2 and 3, are both, yet I’ll often stick one on when channel hopping and quite happily stay up past bedtime until the last baddie is viscerally murdered), and it’s not complicated; it’s pure power fantasy fulfilment. It’s a safe, obviously popcorn/unreal version of the world where baddies are uncomplicated certifiable blackshirts, and I can safely enjoy similarly unreal levels of violence being meted out. My hatred of bullies runs deep enough at this point of my life that I feel not the slightest twinge in enjoying fantasy environments where they suffer imaginative, painful deaths at the hands of “heroes” whose superpowe rs are nigh invulnerability, rage, and outrageous improvised weapon skills.
Well, back when I was losing my shit over how good Joker was (ah, that’s the last time I fell in love, yes, of course, how apposite) I pointed out at some length how the scene in the subway car was so important because of how it inverted the usual tropes of that narrative moment in a revenge movie (including a very similar scene in The Brave One).
Well, Derelict takes all of that several steps further.
It does so, in part, because this is neither a superhero or supervillain origin story. This is not a movie concerned with flights of fantasy, in other words, but one painfully grounded in a harsh and unforgiving reality. That expresses itself in how the movie approaches violence, but also in the way that the writers seem to be consistently asking the question ‘yes, but what would really happen?’, and letting that set the template.
By freeing itself from what I’ve just this moment realised is becoming an oppressive template for far too many of the stories we’re producing, in the current moment (that of ‘a standalone narrative with series potential’), Derelict can instead devote all its energies to working the problem; getting inside the heads of all the principle players, understanding what makes them tick, how they interact, mapping out cause and effect, then delivering it in an extraordinary display of cinematic flair and intelligence.
Because despite what the commitment to realism in the writing might lead you to expect, one of the many ways Derelict subverts expectations is that it’s a beautiful film. The cinematography, shot framing, sound design, and editing are all exquisite; artful enough to lend an air of elevation to the movie, without ever becoming overpowering or knocking me out of the story. The beauty of the filmmaking doesn’t stand in opposition to the ugliness frequently portrayed in the narrative, but stands alongside it, escalating the sense of threat or dread, or, just occasionally, providing a brief respite from the psychological and emotional weight of the unfolding story.
I fear this is in danger of becoming overlong;
We are over a thousand words in and I really have only begun to scratch the surface of what this film manages to achieve. In the best way, I am shaken by the achievement Derelict represents, I had no idea it was possible for indie cinema to be this good (a fault that almost certainly lies with me rather than the form, to be clear). I think what most impressed me – no, more than impressed, floored me, felt like both a brilliant achievement and a genuine artistic challenge – is that, though the film is tough, harsh, and unflinching, it does also have an undeniable beating heart, a conscience, a soul. That doesn’t make the darkness easier to deal with – in fact,
it’s part of what makes much of it so hard to watch
– but it does mean the movie avoids the poison of cynicism that renders so much of the current wave of cinema and TV difficult for me to connect to; or, even when I enjoy it, it feels like there’s this thin pane of glass that stops me engaging emotionally. And that doesn’t make it bad art, to be clear (and Christ knows I don’t want every movie I watch to make me feel like Derelict did, I’d never get out of bed – there’s always space for popcorn, or there should be, IMO); but I think it explains why I find it so hard, these days, to fall in love.
Well, thanks to Derelict, I’ve learned it’s still possible. And if what I‘ve outlined above appeals to you at all, I really cannot recommend this movie enough. It feels to me to have the power of a game-changer, and I suspect I’m not the only person out there who didn’t realise how much they needed a movie like this.
Abigail is a socially isolated, angry young woman who is struggling to come to terms with the brutal murder of her father some years prior. When she learns that one of her father’s murderers is about to be released from prison, Abi sets herself on a path of revenge. Matt is a young man whose life gets turned upside down by the return of his brother Ewan. The destinies of these lost souls crosses in ways that will tragically shape their lives.