Despite a powerful (if underdeveloped) lead performance by talented young actor Joe Cole, Offender stumbles with its contrived premise and an over reliance on style over content.

The Skins actor plays Tommy, a young labourer with a pretty solicitor girlfriend Elise (a nice turn by Fresh Meat’s Kimberly Nixon) who is expecting their first child. All is rosy until Elise takes on the case of a pack of vicious youths who are changed with pulling off an armed robbery and committing murder during the London Riots. Afraid she may have realised they are the actual culprits, she is assaulted by one of the gang, which leads to her losing the baby.

Forced apart by the tragedy, a distraught Tommy resolves to get some retribution by committing a crime which sees him thrown into the same establishment as his intended targets. Will he prevail with his plans, or will the corrupt, dysfunctional system get the better of him?

The ghost of Scum looms large here, and despite some well-observed moments of life behind bars, it’s hard to get behind the central character and the situations he lands himself in, due to the rather implausible motivations which lead him on that journey in the first place.

Both Tommy and Elise’s post-trauma break-up and his subsequent plans to land himself behind bars (which doesn’t necessarily guarantee he’ll end up in the same institute as the villain) is pretty hard to swallow, and this is a fundamental issue with dogs the rest of the film. Because of this, no matter how many unflinching scenes of violence and revenge there are to follow, Tommy’s actions struggle to elicit the emotional response needed.

The riots and their aftermath (seen in awkwardly placed flashbacks throughout) are barely addressed and remain solely a vacuous device to show the gang engaging in criminal behaviour. It doesn’t help that this painful and raw slice of recent history is given a slow-mo, pop promo sheen. It’s a misjudged move by the makers, and should have been handled with a little more sensitivity. That use of slow-mo grows increasingly gratuitous (and tiresome) as the action progresses, and ends of substituting those moments where gravitas and weight should have existed.

As mentioned, Cole is pretty strong here, even with the inherent flaws in his character. Director Ron Scarpelo does a good job of breathing realism into the prison scenes, helped in a large part, by casting a number of non-actors, who make pretty formidable and intimidating inmates. It’s just unfortunate that the visual clichés and character deficits weren’t given the same care and attention that has gone into creating that environment.

In the end, Offender offers only a frustratingly brief glimpse into the kind of sobering, yet absorbing, UK prison dramas it’s clearly pitched towards.