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Sight and Sound Review – Film of the Month

February 2009

By Jonathan Romney

It would be easy to stereotype Better Things, Duane Hopkins’ debut feature, as an extreme example of British miserabilist realism. The film is severe in mood and the predominantly blue-grey tones of Lol Crawley’s photography suggest an eternal Thursday afternoon of the soul. While its background of small-town drugs culture is hardly new to UK cinema, Hopkins’ film depicts, or rather creates, a piece of British social landscape that we have never quite seen before: a corner of the rural Cotswolds that appears to be twinned with the drab, doom-soaked expanses of Bruno Dumont’s northern France. 

Better Things is bookended by a line, in voice-over, from the novel that Gail is reading: “This was real life, and real life was difficult at best.” As with any work that dwells on life’s difficulty, the critic is always tempted to plead that the tenor is finally optimistic despite all appearances – yet a too-positive view would be to traduce Hopkins’ vision. Yes, intimations of hope are offered towards the end of Better Things, notably Gail’s triumph over agoraphobia: she is last seen striding determinedly into the distance. However, the film closes on a composed shot of Rob after his overdose, stretched out like Henry Wallis’ deathbed portrait of the poet Thomas Chatterton. Among the overt philosophical statements in the film is Nan’s remark, “This is a good life, as long as you don’t weaken.” But perhaps we shouldn’t take too much consolation from that motto: the tragedy of Better Things is that people almost invariably weaken. 

As a realist picture of small-town life, Better Things is observational to a semi-documentary degree, not least because of the casting of non-professionals, many of them young people with real-life drug experience. Its picture of drug use is equally free of clichés and of glamour: the local dealer is a no-nonsense, rather motherly young woman as opposed to British cinema’s usual snarling geezers.

 

Unusually, Better Things juxtaposes the emotions of young and old and shows how alike they can be. This is most apparent when Mr Galdwin witnesses Larry raging on his phone at his ex-girlfriend; the older man has alos been simmering (for years, it’s implied) over a heartbreak, perhaps a betrayal on his wife’s part. The film is notably unsentimental about its one source of wisdom, Gail’s nan. There is a cathartic moment in the film’s first display of defiant will when the housebound Nan insists that Gail take her out: her expression of delight at the landscape, and a matching shot of windblown trees, briefly dispels the film’s almost unbearable stasis. This moment of release comes just before Nan’s death; perhaps Gail learns from it in time. Still, this is an unsentimental picture of age passing on knowledge to youth and the austere tone endures. 

Throughout the film, Hopkins manages an intensely realised orchestration of motion and stillness, the latter being predominant. Characters often seem to move in slow motion, in the distorted temporality of heroin use. A key image of Jon’s car racing through the countryside at night with shots through the windscreen offers a picture of going nowhere fast. As in the techno music that can occasionally be heard, there is little difference between perpetual forward motion and absolute stasis. 

While very much an individual stylist, Hopkins shows the same contemplative attention to small, workaday details as his contemporaries Lynne Ramsay and Andrea Arnold. This is as meticulously and overtly edited a film as any Hollywood drama: Hopkins is not one for the glumly contemplative long take, itself increasingly an art-cinema cliché. Rather, he and editor Chris Barwell offer extended chains of discrete images for us to order associatively, as we would with in images in poetry, rather than to construct narrative information. Indeed, Better Things requires the viewer to do more connective work than just about any other recent British film. Hopkins’ style establishes itself in a quietly striking pre-credits sequence, which begins with 28 discrete shots of even length, so uniformly static that at first they might be mistaken for a sequence of photographic stills. 

A series of shots of Gail in her room, framed by images from the surrounding landscape (trees on the horizon, rows of non-descript suburban-style houses); then images from the scene of Tess’s overdose, including close-ups of heroin user’s gear, of the needle stuck in her arm, of her frozen features; the name ‘TESS’ written in flowers on her grave, and Rob standing holding a bouquet.

Continued...


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