When we first meet Jack Burridge, an unworldly, twentysomething Brit, it looks as though he's entering a witness protection program. His caseworker, Terry (Peter Mullan), drives him to a small town where, as we understand it, he will start anew.
But a series of artfully layered flashbacks leaves a trail of clues for audience members who haven't read the book by Jonathan Trigell on which the film is based. As it happens, even the naive, seemingly dimwitted Jack has a skeleton in his closet: He helped murder a girl long ago, when he was only a schoolboy.
While his mother was dying of breast cancer and his neglectful father lacked interest in the scrapes and bruises he suffered at the hands of bullies, the impressionable child took up with a menacing new friend named Philip (played remarkably by young Taylor Doherty), a boy with the word "wicked" practically written on his face -- the snarling upper lip, the icy eyes framed by heavy eyelids.
The film is rich with other subtle expressions. In particular, Andrew Garfield's portrayal of Jack as a young adult -- by now he's a tense, twitching man-child who regards people very gingerly -- taps a deep, dark reservoir of sentiment. Even his speech patterns are anguished, with many false starts, long pauses and nervous smiles whenever he is asked the simplest of questions.
Director John Crowley, a veteran Irish theater director now working in film, is deliberate with every last element of his film. For starters, he demonstrates unusual sensitivity to the thuds and bumps of human bodies moving through space. He doesn't muddy the soundscape with cloying music -- nothing more than the occasional squall of strings or woodwinds. As a consequence, the audience is treated to the eerie splat of a dripping faucet, the suspenseful creak of a footstep on floorboards, even the smack of a wet, sticky kiss.
Images are painted with beiges and browns and, whenever possible, shot with hot, natural light. When a scene takes place inside a home and office, the white walls and wood paneling are always uncluttered by paintings or portraits. Crowley has effectively stripped the film's modern setting to its emotional core.
It's refreshing to see a full-figured woman sexualized and physically appreciated in the way Crowley portrays Jack's eventual girlfriend, Michelle (Katie Lyons). At first, she's presented as smart, impetuous and attractive; she's photographed in manners that flatter her soft, pretty face. But, sadly, even Michelle succumbs to the fate suffered by so many fictional women: By the end of the movie, she's nothing more than a sweet, self-sacrificing girlfriend who exists for the sole purpose of redeeming the male protagonist.
Nevertheless, the film is visually and aurally stunning with a strong, well-threaded narrative -- not to mention a sensitive character study of Jack. It's a patient, natural and very lovely meditation on vulnerability and the relative bounds of recovery, redemption and forgiveness. The audience is left hypnotized.