The fortunes of the crew rise as they begin to expand their drug empire before descending into a bloody nadir. The story’s ebb and flow leans on a model which goes back to Goodfellas and further, and there is an air of inevitability about the final act. Despite these well-worn parameters, the film seems caught in two minds as to whether to shoot these beats naturalistically, or to stylise the lives of the protagonists, especially in the middle section.
This being said, there are a number of successes. John Connors, who plays the protagonist Jason, turns in a brooding, layered performance. In some ways leaning on the cinematic icons of the 50s and 60s, Connors lets stoicism flow over into rage convincingly. It’s a performance which hinges on small actions, and its these nuances which allow Jason to be the most fleshed-out of the characters. Good too, is the pacing of the film. The escalation of violence, which is in itself visceral and convincing, feels well earned, and there is a palpable and growing sense of foreboding as the plot develops. Though we may be able to work out what the climax of the film will be, the steps taken to get there make sense.
Less pleasing is the representation of women. In this fiercely masculine world, women exist solely to be protected, impregnated, or for a man to cheat with. Even with this latter point, any notion of female agency is brutally punished. This is a hallmark of gangster movies – just think of the suffocating world Dianne Keaton operates in in The Godfather: Part 2, for instance – but that shouldn’t have to make it a pre-requisite for the genre.
However, there are some subtle, stylistic moments. As Jay boxes alone in a darkened room, you’re drawn to believe that this is a solitary figure in a classic, murky gym. Yet as the camera follows Jay across the room it opens up to a light, airy, and modern space, full of other gym users and new machinery. This fusing of the old and the new comes to symbolise the commonality to any gangster tale, regardless of geography or time.
Equally, O’Connor bookends the film with images of the main protagonists’ childhood, something which serves to highlight the cycle of crime which these young boys fell into. In a similar ilk to the films of Shane Meadows, O’Connor captures a potent disaffection of youth, and the ease with which this can slip into lawlessness. It’s touches like these which steer Cardboard Gangsters away from the generic trappings of the genre, and offer a stylistic appendage to the film. Though this film doesn’t re-make the wheel, there are glimpses that it has its own voice.
Cardboard Gangsters is released on August 4th