Reviews Short Narrative

The Talk (2020) – 3 stars

Director: Jay Bhatti

Writers: Jay Bhatti

Cast: Dan Furlonger, David Omordia, Stephen Lee

Running time: 15mins

For more information on Jay Bhatti’s films, visit his IMDb page.

There is often something a little dispiriting about an independent film that leans heavily on studio cinema for its ideas and iconography. Free from the constraints of conventional production, directors outside the movie-making establishment could theoretically be making boundary-pushing films about any number of taboo topics that are off the table when it comes to working within the system – but so many opt simply to spend their time looking to make shoestring versions of Hollywood’s most tiresome tropes.

Of course, I understand why this would be the case: if you want to make a living from filmmaking, it is a sad matter of fact that under the present economic system, most will need to appeal to the mainstream studios to pick up steady work. The early short films of these directors therefore serve as a moving CV – evidence that they can juggle a small budget, over a limited timeframe, and still produce something that could conceivably pass for standard popcorn fare. The troublesome thing about imitation of this kind, however, is that it is still perceived as the sincerest form of flattery, and will be taken as sanctifying the tired and cliché-ridden output that many studios churn out.

Jay Bhatti’s The Talk is a clear example of this kind of filmmaking. It is a tightly-produced, uncontroversial and clinical demonstration of the crew’s practical skills, while being entirely untroubled by leveraging innovative techniques, or providing fresh perspectives on the hackneyed genre staples it harks after.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen a great deal of these films in my time – aping the inevitable rendition and interrogation sequence that so regularly frequents the modern action-thriller – and few do it this well. Bhatti’s script is able to move at pace, while still building tension and (most importantly) making sense – never throwing sudden curveballs at us when he realises that he missed a certain revelation out of the first three drafts, and pointedly refusing to scramble for a definitive resolution in the way that cheapens so many other short thrillers.

The production’s technical prowess should also be praised. The fabulously shadowy arena for the cross-examination of David Omordia’s nameless ‘Prisoner’ by Dan Furlonger’s ‘Interrogator’ is a fine example of how darkness can be deployed to dress up an otherwise plain setting, while the top-down lighting draws us to the faces of the actors – who are rightly the focal point of the scene – highlighting every contour of their weathered faces to show the hard lives they have lived, and helping us to feel all the intensity of the interaction between the two of them.

At the same time, the Dimiter Dimitroff makes use of a ceiling fan to great effect in Omordia’s cell, with a pale natural light flitting between its blades to emulate some of the iconic tension of Apocalypse Now’s opening sequence. Sound recordist Andrea Calaprice smartly makes use of the fan too, with the diegetic sound from the fan being used to score the final scene, as Omordia faces his hellish apparent fate at the hands of ‘Guard’ Stephen Lee. The fluttering of the ventilation system provides the moment with a frenetic heartbeat, which will help viewers empathise with the anxiety of the seemingly doomed protagonist.

With that being said, just as the ill-fated early attempts at CGI realism saw the likes of Beowulf and A Christmas Carol panned for their horrific, dead-eyed cast, there is something oddly off-putting about The Talk – it’s moments of solid replication serving to highlight its rougher edges, it’s otherness, trapping it in a kind of genre-based uncanny valley. For example, for a film which relies entirely on the physical threat posed to its protagonist, it is decidedly feather-weight when it comes to its delivery of violence.

The opening beating delivered to Omordia feels heavily staged – as he and Lee go through the motions of a heavily choreographed sequence of blows. The slightly clunky execution of this sequence is not helped by a light-touch approach to editing – it all comes from one angle, but chopping and changing between punches might make this a more distressing and believable scene for the audience (as well as adding some beefier foley than the timid sounds signifying contact).

The assault culminates in a headbutt square to Omordia’s jaw – and coupled with the other issues, it distractingly leaves him without so much as a bloody nose, or fat lip. Indeed, the small puddle of blood on Omordia’s forehead does not do justice to the thrashing he has supposedly taken over the course of four days – and as more details of his treatment at the hands of these ruthless ‘traffickers’ emerge, this becomes increasingly absurd. The fact that the central villain has all the malice of an IT technician – his impeccably ironed shirt tucked so ominously into his beige chinos as he looms toward the camera from the shadows – does little to rebuild the film’s credibility from here.

That is not to say that a bad man has to look like a grizzled cast-off from a Guy Ritchie production to be seen as threatening – it’s just that the film could do more to surprise us about his talents. Utopia’s Paul Ready and Neil Maskell for example seem as frightening as a Mark Ronson impersonator and a trainee plumber, before the spoons come out – but the sudden and unforgivably brutality they mete out means their initially ordinary appearance becomes utterly nightmarish. I can very easily imagine Furlonger thriving in such a role, rather than being forced by the script to just pretend that he is a towering Vinnie Jones type.

At the same time, one of the enduring features of this kind of scene is a kind of absurdly erotic undercurrent, which somewhat undermines proceedings if it isn’t addressed. As the ensuing dick-swinging contest of rutting alpha-males irrepressibly returns to the concept of “breaking” each other – stroking each other’s faces, speaking softly into the ear, stating repeatedly that they are ‘going to enjoy this’ – The Talk does not seem self-aware enough to do this. While even recent Bond films have leant into this in an admittedly enjoyable, flirtatious manner (Mads Mikkelson’s Le Chiffre is gleefully willing to give 007’s genitals a beating, while Javier Bardem’s Raoul Silva sees his coquettish monologue cut short by the iconic spy confirming he’s no stranger to experimentation), The Talk is only concerned with showing it can do a traditional interrogation scene, without looking to examine any of the tropes such works have previously leant heavily on.

While the film might well be technically sound enough to score gigs with production firms then, it comes up short when it comes to providing audiences with something truly eye-catching or entertaining. For all the brooding stoicism of the main characters, and the sprinkling of rather mild cursing, there isn’t much of a demonstrable threat, while there is also a grating humourlessness about it that mean there is nothing to distract us from its frayed edges, trapping it in no-man’s land.

Jay Bhatti’s film is a solid product, in the sense that it shows he and his team are genre-savvy enough to pull off certain established staples of mainstream cinema, and on a budget. However, if the filmmakers hope to do more than simply pick up work, they need to find new ways to tell stories, or examine the ways stories have been told previously.

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