Does violence beget violence? Can revenge satisfy? These are the themes of Dan Reed’s graphic thriller Straightheads. “Straighthead” is gang slang for anyone not involved in crime and Reed attempts to portray how violence, in particular rape, can turn the straightest person into a crazed, vengeful murderer.
It is a dangerous theme, not least because to convince your audience of your message, you must show the very acts that drive the protagonist over the edge. This can be done with humour and subtlety (see Thelma and Louise). More often though, it threatens to brutalise the audience, turning them into a mob baying for revenge, inured to any more profound message (see Straw Dogs et al). Unfortunately for Reed, Straightheads falls into the latter category – just.
Alice (Gillian Anderson) is a smart, career woman – all tight skirts and stilettos – Adam (Danny Dyer) the lairy bloke installing a CCTV system at her luxury penthouse. Of course, being posh totty, Alice finds the goon-faced Adam irresistibly sexy, and, after dragging him along to the kind of party you only see in Footballer’s Wives, they have passionate sex beneath the stars before driving home through dense forest. Is it me? But at this point all I could think of was the cold and damp.
Driving through the forest, they are waylaid and subjected to a brutal attack, which leaves Alice vengeful and Adam, unable to protect her from gang rape, impotent. On discovering the whereabouts of their attackers, Alice tempts Adam back into the forest from where she plans a terrible revenge.
Reed cut his teeth making documentaries about places like Kosovo, where the use of rape as a weapon or war is well documented, and gang culture, which too often links male potency with sexual violence. Straightheads is his first feature and was inspired by the anxieties he accumulated during his years making documentaries and a vivid dream after witnessing an attempted rape.
The film’s genesis in a dream makes sense. Straightheads is a fairy tale, albeit more Brothers Grimm than Hans Christian Anderson. The forest represents unleashed primal instincts; the city keeps the monsters from the id caged. As with all fairytales, the film is a morality tale: Alice’s horrific revenge does not sate her, it condemns her as no better than those who brutalised her.
It is also curiously old-fashioned. In Reed’s world all men are rapists, an idea I thought went out with the ’80s. Not according to Straightheads: women, it implies, need protection from men, who are invariably violent, even when trying to protect them. The sex instinct for the men is equally debased, equated in Straightheads: with power and the violent subjugation of women. Oh please!
Coming from a man this could be an interesting, if jaundiced, view of the gender. But the film falls down badly with its casting. Dyer is the thug du jour of British film, a cheeky chappy, ready to ruck. Anderson is a cool, accomplished actress. The idea that these two would get it together is ludicrous and the sexual chemistry simply lacking. The clichs of their relationship – from her penthouse to the every-posh-girl-yearns-for-a-bit-of-rough storyline – undermines the central premise.
It’s a pity. There are important themes to be explored within this film, themes like the conflicting messages about masculinity sent to modern men and their virtual castration by a feminised (note not feminist) society. It is a theme dealt with in the BBC show Life on Mars, only Gene Hunt and Sam Tyler handle it with more wit and vigour.