There are a select few genres that are staples for filmmakers, especially ones fairly new to their craft. Perennially found on this list is the horror flick and their more realistic sibling, the crime thriller, are reasonably easy to create and has a fair chance of being successful. One of the fundamental reasons for this ‘go-to’ status among the writers and directors is these types of stories readily tap into some of the primitive emotions and drives. These internal motivations have persisted through a plethora of modifications to our genome because they are essential to our survival. Horror is based on the most primeval of all responses; feat and the resultant choice between ‘flight or fight’. The crime movie is much more insidious in its appearing. In some fashion people are inexplicably drawn to the determination typically found in the crime thriller’s lead character. They are survivors, well able to adapt to circumstances outside the neatly protected sphere forged by society and its layers of protective rules, regulations and laws. The gangster is an archetype that defies the stringent the restrictions society demands in compensation for security. We can watch a gangster flick living vicariously outside the law removed for a couple of hours from the mundane reality of our lives for the seedy, dark under belly of our culture. Just like the horror film occasionally a crime movie comes around that manages to adhere to the precepts of the genre while affording the audience with a significantly greater emotional and psychological depth. I recently encountered such a film and was immediately impressed with the production. The film has a simple title quite befitting a movie about a lower echelon criminal, ‘Shifty’. What the filmmaker, Eran Creevy, lacks in items on his resume he more than readily compensates for with an innate potential and demonstrative ability. It has been a very long time since I have watched a movie with a crook as its central characters.
The setting of the film is placed on the fringes of London, the neighborhoods were the economically disenfranchise eke out their lives. This is the kind of movie generally referred to as a ‘day in the life’ movie that provides the viewers with a twenty four hour slice in the life of the characters. The titular role here, Shifty (Riz Ahmed), is a neighborhood drug dealer. This is not some member of a vast cartel or international narcotic ring, Shifty is just a young man with little in the way of marketable skills or career opportunities so he survives his existence by selling other a means to numb others of their own plights. This is the same point of embarkation we have become accustomed to expect. It is also where this imaginative filmmaker begins to depart from the format that has defined this genre for so many decades. This is what I found so amazingly compelling about this movie. It simultaneously incorporates the hackney elements of a criminal flick while infusing it with pathos normally not found in the usual examples of this sort of story. You expect to watch a young man struggling against all odds to make it through each day. A contrast is frequently placed in the story to help underline the ‘choice’ to follow a life of crime. In the forties this was traditionally accomplished with a pair of brothers, one a criminal and the other either a district attorney or priest. Here Creevy plays out a variation on the theme. Juxtaposed to the aptly named Shifty is his childhood friend, Chris (Daniel Mays). This is where the single day time span is utilized. After a number of years Chris returns to the old neighborhood for a visit. To this end Chris decides to attend a party in order to catch up with old friends. There he crosses paths with Shifty and through a normal series of ordinary events, the wind up spending the day together. This gives the audience a firsthand view of two roads that started off together but literally diverged in the woods.
Chris becomes the surrogate for the audience representing a perspective that allows immediate identification. This is more than providing a contrast between two men of approximately the same age and nearly identical origins. This plot device becomes a focal point in relating not only the particulars of the situation but the groundwork for the emotional dissection that is about to get under way. Chris is introduced to an aspect of life that he knew about, not only with an intellectual awareness of a businessman reading about such things in the morning papers. Chris grew up surrounded by petty crimes, minor drug deals and desperate junkies scrounging for their next into the ephemeral relief the drug will bring. As Chris follows Shifty along on his daily rounds Chris is given a foreboding glimpse into how his life could have easily turned out. The poignancy that gives this film its incredible emotional power is the way we can so readily identify with. Every member of the audience has a pivotal movement that could have sent their lives careening off in a radically different direction. Like a tiny pebble in the path of a bolder rolling down a hill; something seemingly insignificant can effect a sizable change.
Chris not only witnesses the life he might have had the more important content presented here is the way little details Chris tried to move pass now confront him putting on display how incredibly simple a few random events or miniscule choices have been in shaping the life he has avoiding the existence Shifty endues. Chris watches as another alternative for denizens of that neighbor face. He could have become one of the drug addicts nearly devoid of humanity. They were reduced to this state by the overpowering siren call of the drug. Chris realizes you either get out of that area or die there. There is little discernment between which sides of the transaction you are on; the die is cast and without an almost miraculous intervention fate has been sealed. Eran Creevy is relatively new to both screenwriting and direction but it is rare to see such inherent ability as a story teller. He lays out the day in the lives of these two friends as they reconnect in their familiar neighborhood. Creevy may start out with the recognizable tropes we all know but what he accomplishes with them is spectacular. This might seem slowly paced for a crime drama but that is because it is a façade of this sort of film. Actually ‘Shifty’ is a psychological examination splaying a life open in order to determine where life’s road forked. Creevy frames each shot in a fashion that the lighting and placements reinforce the mood set by the interaction of the characters. He foregoes the urge to rush the conclusion holding fast to telling the story on his terms.