DVDanger: 'Tower Block'

UK suspense with a thick slice of social realism and bloodshed

Sheridan Smith in "Tower Block": Ignore the gun, this is the future of British acting.

I'll always remember when they knocked down the Victoria Flats. They were my home town's big projects-like apartment complex, and as I walked past them on the way home from school, I would always cross the road away from them. When they were finally demolished, like many people, I inwardly cheered. It was a hell hole, and no one really missed it.

Tower Block (available now on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory) drops you right in the heart of such a dilapidated development. The story is a simple sealed-room conceit. In a crumbling British apartment complex, a kid gets beaten to death in the walkway. Only one person goes to help him, Becky (Sheridan Smith), and she gets nothing but a savage kicking for her troubles. Even she won't talk to the cops when they come round asking for witnesses. This is, after all, the kind of neighborhood where the best eye is a blind one. Three months later, someone is very interested in opening everyone's eyes, and then shutting them with a high powered sniper bullet. The entire building has been converted into a death trap, and one by one the last residents are picked off by an unseen assassin hell-bent on blowing chunks out of them from afar.

Tower Block is a pressure cooker of a film. The characters are defined by the violence and how they react to it. A lot of the balancing act comes from writer James Moran, who expresses the simple paranoia of everyday life: As he notes in the commentary track, "I am a worrier."

This is urban fear, pure and simple. In an American film, the sniper would likely be a metaphor for the hand of God. But this is a British movie, owing more to social realist dramas like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning than 7even. This is inhumane justice from a mortal's hand, and it is bloody and arbitrary.

There's a blast of Enzo G. Castellari's Swinging London home invasion thriller Cold Eyes of Fear , but Tower Block is a decidedly contemporary spin on the trope. In the last couple of years, there has been a brief spate of genre-friendly dramas about the collapse of the urban tower block. These were supposed to be the salvation of the slum, sky-kissing urban utopias that would give the residents a clear view of a smog-free horizon. Of course, they rapidly became rotting ferroconcrete monstrosities that residents couldn't wait to flee for the suburbs. Those that stayed did so generally through poverty or a strange sense of loyalty.

Now development, deterioration, and gentrification are powering the bulldozers, and British film makers are seeing the dramatic possibilities of the end of an era. In the dystopian Citadel, the last hangers-on were either too scared or too depraved to leave, with subhuman inbred cannibalistic tribes roaming the walkways. There's a little tickle at the back of the head that it's urban fear tipped into right-wing paranoia: Even before the Trayvon Martin shooting, UK tabloids had been ramping up the fear of roaming gangs of hoodies eating babies and devaluing the gold standard. By contrast, Attack the Block was much more sympathetic figures about the warriors of the teenage wasteland: as writer/director Joe Cornish put it, his story is "about a disenfranchised and demonized section of society."

Tower Block sits somewhere between the two. The gunfire starts because the residents failed a basic morality test. But then Moran's script asks a basic question: Would you have done any better? Would you have run into the hallway to save a complete stranger from a pair of masked bastards, or would you have locked the door with a dead bolt?

There's a who's who of British TV character actors scattered through the captured cast, not least Russell Tovey (best known as George the werewolf in the British version of Being Human. His ailing alcoholic is the closest thing to an unflawed hero, but it's really Smith who steals the show. Seriously, producers, pay attention. A couple of decades from now, every sentence that uses "Maggie Smith" as a superlative, it'll be "Sheridan Smith" instead. She got her break as a comedy actress, helping anchor the supremely sly humor of Northern working class sitcom Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, and has held down stage roles on the West End from Heda Gabler to Legally Blonde, and even when the material's bad, she's usually the best thing in it. Yes, here she's playing the tank-top heroine, but she does it authentically, with that street-grimed vulnerability that she wields so well.

If anyone comes close to stealing her show, it has to be Jack O'Connell as a teen criminal turned local petty gangster. His turn as the dangerously smart Kurtis is like his iconic role in Skins as wannabe hard man James, amped up after an all-night bender. Moran, like Cornish, gets that a man-boy like Kurtis a product of his environment, but doesn't gloss over that he's also a bully and a thug of the worst kind. It's in the little moments, like … ever seen the fundamentally underrated Ulee's Gold? There's a moment when Peter Fonda drinks a glass of water that, to me, is one of the most memorable character beats ever. O'Connell does the same here when he changes a shirt. Unmissable cinema.

Ultimately, this is great social drama. And then, on top of everything else, there's a sniper. Moran's wonderfully grimy sensibilities, locked in to this disturbing little world, revved up on the terror of imminent death and the unstoppable claustrophobia of the urban pit, make for a mean assault on the brain.

Tower Block is available now in Blu-ray from Shout! Factory. Next week in DVDanger: I get graphic with Marvel Knights Animation Presents Wolverine: Origins.

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