The “high concept” movie – in other words, a movie with an arresting plot hook that can be summed up in one sentence – is usually thought of as a Hollywood proposition. However, low budget movies can pursue a high concept in a way that connects as strongly with audiences as their big-budget brethren: Memento and The Blair Witch Project are noteworthy examples of low-budget/high-concept films that did well with audiences.
There are plenty of other small-scale movies with high concepts that deserve to connect with audiences. Tower Block, a recent thriller from the U.K., is one such film. The premise has a pleasing minimalism: the last residents in a tower block reclaimed by the government are going about their business when a sniper suddenly begins shooting at the tenants through their windows. When the survivors escape into the safety of the hall, they realize their exits have been blocked and their ability to phone or use the computer have been disabled. In other words, they are doomed to die unless they can outwit their mysterious, murder-minded tormentor.
Those trying to survive include a young woman on her own (Sheridan Smith), a military man pensioner (Ralph Brown) trying to protect his wife, a sad-eyed closet alcoholic (Russell Tovey) and a gleefully mean chav (Jack O’Connell) who shakes down the other tenants for protection money. As they struggle to overcome their differences and find a way out, they realize why they are being targeted – months ago, a young man was beaten to death in the halls of the tower block and no one protected him. That realization weighs heavily on them as the killer steps up his game and the situation grows ever more desperate.
Tower Block could have gone the Hollywood route with this high concept but instead James Moran’s script keeps the focus tight and the proceedings surprisingly unpredictable. From the beginning to the finale, the script doesn’t hesitate to kill off any of its characters, even the really likeable ones (the first sniper shooting is genuinely shocking, both in the timing and in who gets hit). It balances this ruthlessness with a nice level of attention to character, allowing them all to develop in interesting ways as the plot unfurls. This sense of balance is maintained to the closing minutes, giving the film a sense of continuity in storytelling that you don’t always get in high concept fare.
The tidiness of the script is accentuated by taut direction from James Nunn and Ronnie Thompson. They give the film an appropriately gritty look – Ben Moulden’s cinematography goes for a desaturated style that favors grey tones – and deploy the camera tricks and CGI touches sparingly, making them count (so when the audience sees a stylized overhead shot, it has genuine impact). They handle the story’s violent beats in an appropriate way, making these moments short, realistic and shocking in how suddenly they erupt. Along the way, they build several tense setpieces, including two escape attempts that go awry in a nerve-wracking way and the final, brutal showdown between the killer and the final group of survivors.
That said, the key element that breathes life into the high concept with Tower Block is the low-key quality of the performances. Smith makes for a strong female lead without falling into “girl power” cliches, O’Connell manages to make a sleazy character compelling and Brown gives some heart and dimension to a “tough old codger” archetype. However, the surprise here is Tovey’s spare, haunting turn as the hard drinker who does his best to be brave. He subtly adds a soulfulness to the character, particularly in the second half of the film, in a way that makes his performance truly affecting.
In short, Tower Block is as effective and exciting as any of the high concept fare rolling out of Hollywood right now – and it’s all the more impressive because it achieves its purpose at a fraction of a Hollywood budget. If you’re looking for thrills, Tower Block will fill that need with economical skill.
Blu-Ray Notes: Shout Factory is releasing this title on blu-ray and DVD on July 2nd. The blu-ray was viewed for this review. It boasts a nicely detailed anamorphic transfer that captures the film’s desaturated look well, giving a nice depth to the shadowy interiors. The 5.1 HD sound mix comes across nicely, with crisp dialogue and punch to the sparingly used sound effects (particularly the sniper’s gunshots).
Tower Block also sports a trio of extras. The most substantial is a commentary track by screenwriter James Moran. It’s a compelling overview of the film from the writer’s perspective: he reveals how All The Boys Love Mandy Lane inspired the idea for the script, the motivations behind different plotting and characterization choices and the various challenges involved in shooting the film on a small budget (he also served as a co-producer). It’s rare to get a writer-driven track like this and budding screenwriters will appreciate its analytical tone. The package is rounded out a by a trailer and a set of brief “behind the scenes” interviews that are essentially an EPK – slight stuff but amusing thanks to the good cheer of the actors.