REVIEW: Bluff – an addictive Birmingham noir journey into the abyss of alienation
Birmingham film director Sheikh Shahnawaz explores the subterranean world of illicit drugs, addicts and the plight of the homeless in his debut film Bluff, which was filmed in the underbelly of his home city.
The poignant and multifaceted film peels back the layers of suffering endured both by the drug addicts and the cops on the trail of the drug barons with unsuspecting vulnerable individuals caught in the middle.
Shahnawaz – who was raised in Birmingham by hardworking Bengali parents – takes on the task of writing, directing and producing the gritty film which is dedicated to the memory of his late father who is dramatically, and poignantly, referenced in the feature-length crime drama.
On the surface the film appears to be just another story about an undercover cop infiltrating a drugs network which seems to be the plot of a thousand and one other crime movies, but Shahnawaz is far too canny and intelligent to simply excavate from existing cinematic narratives which have been mined time and again by directors such as Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and John Woo.
Shahnawaz’s script explores the corrosive effects of drugs upon sellers and users, including the cops on the trail of the gangsters who control the supply lines.
Instead of having a myriad of characters, with story threads that criss-cross around the globe and scenes of high octane action choreography involving slow-motion gunplay, Shahnawaz pens a tale that homes in and focuses on just a handful of characters.
The tight narrative allows the audience to concentrate upon the traumatic effects that illicit drugs have upon families, friendship and loyalty. In particular, the director highlights the disturbing rise in a certain drug that has led to deaths.
The film introduces a core quartet of characters which includes an undercover cop, his commanding officer who also acts as his handler, a homeless addict, and a drug lord who owns a pub.
With this small band of characters Shahnawaz takes the audience on a dark journey that spirals into the lower depths of a modern day Dante’s Inferno which consumes lives, friendships, dreams and hopes.
The script delves into the morally complex world of undercover police officers grooming vulnerable drug users to gain entry into the inner circle of the drugs underworld. The deeper the cover, the deeper the conflicts and negative impact upon personal friendships and allegiances.
The undercover cop initially thinks he’s in control of the situation, but as the story pans out Shahnawaz reveals how the senior police officer is also grooming and manipulating the undercover detective. Everyone is using and grooming someone, and nobody seems to pause to count the personal and psychological impact of their actions.
People are cast adrift to deal with their own mental health issues stemming from their personal and professional relationships. Help and support to deal with stress and depression arising out of these toxic and stressful relationships seem nonexistent.
The film steers away from the false Hollywood glamour and glitz of a Michael Bay milieu – or the madcap cartoony loony tunes of Justin Lin’s Fast and Furious franchise – and instead paints with a hard edged and raw reality that showcases truth in an unvarnished manner.
Shahnawaz handles the controversial material in a sensitive manner without resorting to exploitation or cheap thrills.
There are no ‘goodies’ or ‘baddies’ – or a central ‘hero’ – in Shahnawaz’s contemporary Greek tragedy, only flawed people in search of a deeper truth seem to populate the landscape of this noir film. Even the thuggish villains have traces and ghosts of humanity floating behind their haunted eyes.
Nothing in the film is safely and clearly outlined in black or white labels. The film dares to hold up a mirror to the fractured state of the nation and throws a light upon people who are often ignored and marginalised by a heartless and judgmental society.
Although the main narrative thread follows the story from the perspective of an undercover cop named Miller, who goes from a clean cut detective sergeant at the start to a full time drug dealer and user, the emotional heart of the film is the secondary character – a drug addict named Cooks – who is befriended and groomed by Miller to infiltrate the drugs network.
This homeless and bedraggled man, who has no family or friends, and whose existence barely registers to fellow human beings, is the one character who offers a glimmer of hope in a world where real friendship and trust are being bled out.
Cooks is a vulnerable man, living rough on the streets by day and sleeping inside derelict buildings by night, he is a forgotten human being; his life has no meaning for the wider society which has become callous and cold to the voice of the abandoned people who literally survive on a precarious hand-to-mouth existence.
In a world rife with hate, prejudice and social judgment there is no room for sympathy for a homeless drug addict. The director takes the audience on a journey of inner discovery where personal views surrounding law and order, and social stigmas about drug addicts and homelessness are challenged and tested.
No one seems to care whether outcasts and pariahs like Cooks live or die, they exist in a netherworld of alienation and loneliness. Their passions and aspirations have long ago been flushed away in the gutters of the city. These poor people are ignored and demonised in a wealthy first-world country where politicians prioritise expenditure on weapons of war rather than tackling and alleviating urgent issues such as poverty, the rising cost of living, deprivation and homelessness.
Shahnawaz, who also helmed the cinematography, turns the city into a nightmarish Hades where subways become labyrinths of despair and paranoia. There is a constant sense of foreboding in the contrasting textures and colours of Birmingham’s urban landscape which permeates Shahnawaz’s imagery.
The camera lingers over the twinkling nightlights of the city from high vantage points, like an eagle sweeping over the pulsating neon heart of the city, and then travels into the abyss beneath the city’s network of filthy subways which serve as home to the homeless.
The gritty and intimate cinematography captures the freewheeling meandering of Miller the undercover cop as he tries to infiltrate the world of the drug dealers. His tormented journey becomes a metaphor of a man going deep inside himself to discover a deeper truth.
This modern day Orpheus navigates through the underworld maze of Birmingham’s subways towards an answer that shakes the very foundations of his ‘righteous’ philosophy.
In a number of poignant and poetic moments the camera weaves through parts of Birmingham that have changed dramatically over the decades. The subway that connects the city centre to the once rich and prosperous Jewellery Quarter is now in a rank state and littered with debris and grimed with faeces and urine. This foul underground passageway is used by vulnerable people to kip in.
The glory days of the past are over, and buildings that were once a core part of the landscape are now in ruins and are being knocked down and replaced.
Shahnawaz makes a pertinent and poetic point about whether human beings – such as drug addicts and the homeless – are being ‘knocked down and replaced’ too. In a scene where Miller the undercover cop and Cooks the addict prepare heroin for injection, the whole scene takes place inside a derelict building in Digbeth which is pockmarked with peeling graffiti tags upon cracked walls with rusted metal girders jutting out like broken bones.
The director makes a powerful point about Birmingham’s glorious past – which now lies in utter ruins like a decomposing corpse – and the present day where two individuals are looking forward to a very bleak and uncertain future.
Interestingly, the publicity poster for the film employs headshots of Miller as a detective and as an addict, each head facing different directions. The striking juxtaposition immediately brings to mind the symbolism of Janus from Greek mythology. Janus was the god of beginnings and endings, looking to the past and the future, and ushering in change. This powerful visual metaphor conveys some of the motifs in the film where the landscape and characters are in a state of metamorphosis and flux, looking to the past and future simultaneously.
Nothing remains constant or fixed, not human relationships or rock solid concrete buildings. Transformation never ceases.
Ironically, shortly after the film wrapped up shooting in the dilapidated building in Digbeth, the structure was demolished and the site earmarked for exclusive apartments for the rich.
There is no room in this gentrified location for Birmingham’s poor, homeless and destitute. The space is reserved for the high flyers of the city.
The imagery of derelict and rotting buildings makes a potent analogy for the poor in society who have been abandoned and forgotten by an uncaring nation.
Shahnawaz’s editing refuses to ramp up the tension and action like a frenzied Tony Scott production and instead allows the film to breathe naturally with a pacing style that is reminiscent of Waheed Iqbal’s searing Jungleland which was also filmed in Birmingham. Both of these talented artists allow their tales to be told in a sedate and contemplative manner which gives time for the truth to emerge in a natural way rather than a melodramatic or forced manner.
These two emerging Birmingham directors employ documentary realism to their stories of deeply conflicted characters in search of redemption. Also, both directors use the distinctive Birmingham landscape in such a powerful and atmospheric manner that the city becomes a character.
Edgbaston Reservoir – its original name of Rotton Park Reservoir ties in perfectly with the themes of the film – is photographed in a cold light by Shahnawaz where everything appears to be drab and steely. The scenes between the undercover cop and his handler, which predominately take place around the reservoir, are imbued with a bleak and rotten pall.
The waters of the reservoir, which beautifully reflect the Birmingham skyline on bright and clear days, are shrouded with a murky surface in the crime drama. The location wraps itself around the film’s unsettling narrative in a powerful and naturalistic manner.
Just as Birmingham transforms into a character in the film so does the expressive soundtrack to the film. The music, composed by Savfx (Saverio Blasi), is an integral part of the movie; it elevates the mood and themes of Shahnawaz’s story in a profound and emotionally gripping manner.
The composer shies away from using hip-hop beats or heavy bass for the soundtrack. He employs retro vibrations which pulsate and weave with electronic melodies that surge and twist over ambient sounds as the characters drift further into a morally bankrupt world.
The underlining electro-symphonic throbs of tension, with discordant sounds, collide to produce an aural landscape that fits seamlessly into the narrative of the drama.
The handful of actors playing the key roles in this slow burning drama leaves a residual mark on the viewer.
Miller, the tormented and conflicted cop, is played by Gurj Gill. Despite this being Gill’s first role in a feature film he handles himself like a veteran and is convincing as he transforms from a bright-eyed officer, who dreams of bringing down a drugs kingpin, to becoming a man haunted by personal sacrifices and betrayals demanded by his superiors as he goes deeper into the underworld.
Gill delivers his dialogue with a natural vocal delivery as he shuttles between the roles of cop and addict, and his facial expressions are nuanced as he tries to keep in check his inner emotions while fraternising with criminals when he goes undercover.
As he journeys through his character’s descent into the abyss there is a transformation in Gill’s physical appearance and in his movements. He exudes a dynamic psychological aura as he plummets into a world where money has more meaning than human life.
Jason Adams as Cooks is a revelation as the vulnerable addict who becomes a bridge between the undercover cop and the drug dealer.
Adams, like Gill, is another actor who is appearing for the first time in a full-length movie. His portrayal of a physically and psychologically scarred character is so convincing that it makes the viewer think they’re watching a real-life documentary rather than a fictional movie.
The authenticity and empathy that Adams invests in the role of Cooks is palpable as he goes about his daily routine in the streets and parks of Birmingham. There is no syrupy melodrama in his performance, everything is balanced and subtle.
Imran, the drugs kingpin, is played by Birmingham actor Nisaro Karim. He performs the role in a quiet manner – soft spoken, regal, and refined.
This drug dealer dresses in stylish Italian suits, and walks about with a book in his hand rather than a gun. No tracksuit bottoms or gold chains for him, nor fancy fur coats or diamond encrusted walking canes. Hollywood clichés are jettisoned in favour of a more grounded foundation.
Karim uses his natural charisma to draw in the sympathies of the viewer as he divulges tales of verbal and economic racism, including violent bullying, that his character – including his non-English speaking mother – endured which sets Imran on the road to becoming a drug lord.
Instead of frothing at the mouth or shouting out threats at the top of his lungs, Karim prefers to issue his insidious words in a veiled manner that unnerves and unsettles those around him.
The role of Imran’s personal bodyguard and enforcer Neil is performed by the universally recognisable Joe Egan who’s starred in quite a few British crime caper movies over the years.
This craggy hulk of a man needs little or no dialogue to express his feelings or thoughts, and Shahnawaz wisely keeps the character of Neil almost mute which brings a truly unnerving gravitas to the role.
Egan conveys menace with such an intense and rage filled glare that he needs no visible weapons or audible threats to reveal the volcanic violence that bubbles and seethes behind his face. Actors of this calibre are a rare breed.
Egan immediately commands the attention of the audience whenever he appears. Whether walking, driving, or even while seated and immobile, Egan is riveting. He exerts an iron grip without having to employ any cheap acting tricks.
The physicality aspect alone is not what makes Egan’s performance so compelling, its the way he expresses his hidden feelings through subtle ways that keeps the audience glued to the screen.
Shahnawaz has produced a human drama that resonates and prophetically ties in with the current state of the world where ordinary people are forced to make tough decisions on a day-to-day basis to make ends meet as prices rise and vulnerable individuals are exploited and discarded like trash by greedy and unscrupulous politicians and criminals.
The director offers no superheroes, no CGI special effects or cinematic trickery, and no populist escapism. This drama, astonishingly made on a micro-budget of £1,500, delivers a film which is crafted with integrity and passion.
Shahnawaz faced several problems while trying to get this film project into production which included prejudice, lack of opportunity and access to resources.
Shahnawaz’s film dares to share a raw story about tortured and misunderstood individuals where a vulnerable person, abused and exploited, emerges as morally grounded, conscientious and compassionate despite enduring catastrophic poverty and pain.
In a world where drug users and the homeless are shunned and condemned, and where news headlines labels them as nothing more than rodents and scavengers, this film courageously portrays an emotionally bruised human being who craves understanding, friendship, and acceptance.
WATCH | The official trailer for film Bluff:
Bluff is now available on various digital platforms at this link.