The tug of war between style and substance sweats and strains only briefly in Bypass. Duane Hopkins’ much anticipated follow-up to 2008’s Better Things loads one end of the rope with so much pulling power that the substance of his social drama is soon face down in the mud. Impressive visuals and a commanding lead performance help to establish an uncomfortably encroaching atmosphere, one that’s then gradually frittered away by a severely underwritten screenplay unable to use its trump cards.
For a while, Hopkins’ beautifully photographed sophomore effort flatters to deceive. There’s a palpable whiff of lethargic resignation that almost succeeds in pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes. Where once generations made a living at the foundry in town, there’s now little beyond bad debts and petty crime. Heavy use of slow motion and constant cuts combine to paint a fractured picture of life lived in civilised quick sand. Escape is no more than an illusion that reveals itself to be just that before too long.
The opening sums this up neatly. We’re introduced to Greg (Benjamin Dilloway), the only breadwinner in a family that consists of a sick mother and two younger siblings; Tim (George MacKay) and schoolgirl Helen (Lara Peake). He pays mounting debts by stealing cars and robbing houses, a profession that quickly has the police smashing the door in to nick him. It’s a compelling start that capitalises on Hopkins’ poetically disorienting camerawork. With Greg out the picture, sent down for 18 months, fragile Tim is forced to step in.
Tim, a young man with failing health and a burden of responsibility to his sister that he’s not equipped to handle is played by George MacKay, one of the most promising actors to emerge in Britain for some time. Only 22, he’s already worked solidly for a decade and keeps getting better. Here, he’s a gaunt shadow pressed down from all sides. Taking on Greg’s debts, he hawks stolen goods to scrabble together enough cash to keep unsavoury characters off his back. This leaves nothing left for the bailiffs who turn up regularly to try and seize their few remaining items. MacKay, shimmering with doubt and faltering determination, provides the standout in Bypass. In his presence, it’s almost possible to believe the world Hopkins conjures up.
Try as he might it’s not enough. Threads are pulled loose all over the screenplay and then left to dangle untouched for the rest of the film. Parents appear in unnecessary flashbacks that serve only to break up the narrative, Greg goes AWOL, deaths occur, health collapses, key dependents are marginalised and authority figures sidle briefly into view before retreating. Like a poor Jackson Pollock imitator, colour is splashed across the screen at random in the mistaken belief that it will automatically provide shape.
Having established a bleak existence in which Tim’s eventual failure seems inevitable, Hopkins’ then compounds the film’s problems by throwing in an ending that discards all that’s gone before. Suddenly, problems have evaporated and a future pops up with his long-term girlfriend. It’s a startling change of direction that further highlights the slender writing spread across the story.
Hopkins is a talented filmmaker with the ability to create visually arresting portraits of modern life in Britain. Here though, he gets the balance wrong. Bypass is social breakdown lite, skating across rubbish filled alleyways, peeling tower blocks and abandoned industrial land without pausing to engage. To really work there needed to be more than this, much more.