OIFF Review: 'Crook'

(Canada, 90 min.)
Written and directed by Adrian Langley
Starring: Adam Beach, Leah Gibson, Jon McLaren, Luigi Saracino, Jennilee Murray, Sean Tucker, Matthew Stefiuk, Bill Lake.
Ottawa filmmaker Adrian Langley returns with Crook, a follow-up to his 2011 thriller A Violent State. Crook, like A Violent State, brings a taut and gritty tale of violence to the streets of cold bureaucratic Ottawa. Crook unleashes more bullets in ninety minutes than the city has probably ever seen in its lifetime, but this bloody genre flick offers exactly the kind of calibre that will help people outside the 613 take note of Ottawa’s film scene.

Ottawans will immediately notice how the blustery streets of the city have taken a step up on the big screen. A Violent State gave an impressive production for a film shot on a shoestring budget of $5000, but Crook looks a full pay grade above what its price tag probably is. (Langley and producers from Ottawa’s Zed Filmworks declined to answer the inevitable budget question that arose following the film’s world premiere at the 2013 Ottawa International Film Festival.) Crook is sure to garner some attention thanks to the casting of Canadian actor Adam Beach (Flags of Our Fathers, “Arctic Air”), although the buzz following the credits is sure to note how much the film delivers on fairly modest circumstances.

Beach stars as a downtown drug dealer named Bryce who slings smack with his girlfriend, Roxanne (Jennilee Murray), and his partner, Danny (Joe Marques). The stress of working the alleys and back rooms of the city are taking their toll on Bryce, as he blows off steam by playing games of chance with bullets and seedy characters in a dingy club. Bryce plays Russian Roulette, too, with the multiple storylines that take the audience into various corners of the local underworld.

A violent shootout leaves four men dead in a drug-related robbery for Detective Miller (Bill Lake) to investigate. A drug drop (which, appropriately enough, looks as if it goes down near Arts Court) goes wrong when a pair of petty players led by Pretty Boy (Joe McLaren) scoops Bryce’s stash. A call girl named Tricky (Leah Gibson) consorts with a city councillor (Sean Tucker), who in turn fraternizes with a slimy, twisted lawyer (Guy Buller). Said lawyer also threatens to destabilize the machinery put in place by crime lord Tony De Luca (Luigi Saracino) and he casts a creepy Jack the Ripper vibe on the city’s sex trade. Several of the local performers stand out amongst the web of gunplay, especially Murray, Lake and McLaren. Leah Gibson, one of the few talents to come from outside the local film scene, gives a particularly strong performance as the saucy and streetwise Tricky: It’s an edgy and memorable turn.

There’s a lot going in in the opening act of Crook as Bryce devises a plan to get his dope back and nail the kingpin. However, the cross-cut sequences that unfold the story give Crook not only a sense of forward motion, but also a feel for how the workings of the drug trade are all related to the violence that riddles the streets and the corruption that infects the city’s bureaucratic woodwork. The puzzle explodes when the pieces eventually connect and climax with some impressive action sequences and bloody good violence.

Langley himself doesn’t appear in this film, unlike he did A Violent State, but he still assumes multiple roles behind the camera. Langley brings out the coldness of Ottawa streets as he unfolds the grid of Crook’s violent world with a steely look and a hardnosed feel. It’s nice to see a camera take in the cityscape with a tilt that doesn’t reveal a skyline tinkered to look like New York City. The cinematography—Crook was shot by Langley himself—is stylish and atmospheric. Handheld camerawork grants the film an air of tension and an extra cinematic flair.

If A Violent State might be slightly more provocative and unpredictable as a thriller, Crook stands out as a notable step forward in terms of economical filmmaking. Few films shot in the National Capital actually make use of the way the city hides itself and Crook finds a character that comes out of hiding when much of Ottawa shuts down after five. (Interested parties might also want to check out last year’s OIFF film Undercurrent for a similarly effective use of city locations.) Especially enjoyable is a cameo appearance by Ottawa’s ByTowne Cinema, which lights up a tense after-hours action sequence with the twinkling lights of its big old marquee. The posters on displays also advertise Amour and A Royal Affair, and offer a reference point that the cast and crew shot Crook in the frigid month of February. Toughing it out in the brutal weather must have helped Langley et al give Crook such a tangible edge.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Crook screened at the Ottawa International Film Festival at the Rainbow Cinema on October 3rd.