With the entirety of Duane Hopkins‘ “Bypass” shot like a mood-setting montage, you may find yourself waiting for the storytelling proper to start. It never really happens. Overusing lens-flare-y wooziness and a handheld, shallow depth of field aesthetic in an effort to inject a kind of lyricism into its dehumanized urban environments and working-class interiors, the film never settles into anything like a compelling rhythm. And this is despite some very good, committed performances that are happening somewhere underneath all that lathered-on style. It’s a great shame that the sophomore feature director was not as interested in his characters as he was in making a statement film about his characters. Indeed, it feels like the person we come away from the film knowing most about is not its would-be tragic hero, but the director himself who, frankly, comes across as a bit of a show-off, insistently insinuating himself and his over-egged aesthetic between the audience and the characters.
It’s a shame, because there is a core of a good idea here: to dispense with the hard-edged video ugliness of the traditional “gritty drama” and to view these marginalized lives instead through a lyrical, more subjective frame, though it’s hardly a brand new notion. British contemporaries like Andrea Arnold and Lynne Ramsay have been doing that for quite a while now. But Hopkins lets it off the leash entirely, and coupled with a slipshod approach to to the film’s time frame, by which it’s never made clear if minutes, days or months have passed since the last scene, it adds up to a confused and confusing whole, an alienating experience that was difficult to parse, and then disappointing once we’d managed it.
In a kind of narrative bait-and-switch, we start out following George (Ben Dilloway), a one-time promising footballer whose prospects were shattered by injury. He has fallen in with some dodgy types and turned to crime, specifically housebreaking to support his family—his mother, who is ill with some sort of unspecified disease, and younger siblings Tim (a gaunt George MacKay) and Helen (Lara Peake). But in the first of the unexplained, unmotivated leaps in chronology, we’re soon following Tim, now the man of the house after the death of his mother and George’s incarceration. Tim, unaided by the sullen and ungrateful Helen, faces mounting bills, bailiff notices, pressures to involve himself in the local drug trade and, most worryingly, increasing ill health that leads to fainting spells, fits and rashes that break out over his whole body. His only respite from all these woes comes in the form of his girlfriend Lilly (Charlotte Spencer), a creature of seemingly boundless love and support. And then she gets pregnant.
As perhaps you can tell from that plot summary, the film’s problems aren’t only of style and form. The story, inasmuch as it is allowed to glimmer through those omnipresent lens flares, unfolds along the most relentlessly miserable of lines, putting poor hapless Tim through the “Disenfranchisement Derby” of bereavement, poverty, forced criminality, potentially fatal sickness and unplanned pregnancy. And the various grim worlds that Tim’s intersects with are populated by some fairly stock characters—the vicious drug dealer, the untrustworthy fence—these guys feel sketched-in and overfamiliar as gangland figures.
Finally, in one last coup de grace for our engagement, the film totally sells out on its threadbare story, and its hopeful classification (per our press notes) as a thriller, by employing another one of those oh-so convenient time jumps and cutting more or less directly from Tim’s moment of probable defeat (when everything has spiraled to the point of no return, furniture’s been repossessed and he’s neglected his health right up to death’s door) to several months later and an improbably happy, hopeful ending. Having weathered this would-be kitchen sink drama’s insistence on throwing every depressing plot turn at its unfortunate protagonist, we never even get the catharsis of seeing how he extricates himself.
Marshalling a strong cast and some authentic locations, and scoring to the atonal string-based drones of Saunder Jurriaans and Danny Bensi’s compositions, Hopkins does not want for directorial confidence, and the desire—again mentioned in the press materials—to use the camera as another character, an independent but involved observer of events, is at least, on paper, an interesting way to approach social realism. But here the “character” of the camera is favored above all the flesh-and-blood individuals, and its subjectivity becomes our only conduit into the film. So Hopkins’ and DP David Procter’s camera is essentially our narrator, but it is an unreliable one, with a dodgy recall of chronology, a highly selective memory and an irritating tendency, when it is supposed to be looking at the characters, to stare directly into the sun. [C]