Laila (Ahmed), a British-Pakistani girl, and her white boyfriend Aaron (McCarron), live a life of solitude on a caravan park in the Yorkshire moors. It is a life of forced isolation, overshadowed by the fear of being discovered by Laila’s family, who would stop at nothing to recover their wayward daughter. The money Laila earns sweeping hair at a local salon is spent carefully on vitals and codeine. It is a melancholy, peaceful existence, slipping past in opioid numbness, scored by old Patti Smith records. And it is about to be torn apart…
Barry (Nunney) and Tony (Lewis) are ex-bouncers turned hired goons – a role the aggressive Barry relishes more than his introspective elder, whose role is to drive and not ask too many questions. Junaid (Hussain) and his gang of Asian teen thugs – including Laila’s brother Zaheer (Ahmad) – are friends of the family who will stop at nothing to return Laila to her father (Zakir). The gangs converge on a roadside service station and head off in two cars, arriving in Laila’s town under cover of darkness.
Little more need be said of the plot for Daniel Wolfe’s blistering, brutal debut, Catch Me Daddy. It is a disarmingly simple story – existing at some rugged intersection between Bruno Dumont’s sullen existential meanderings, and Sam Peckinpah’s unwavering genre classics of the 1970s. Wolfe – exhibiting a patience rarely seen in debut features – is in no rush to tell his story, allowing characters and landscapes to establish themselves individually before they collapse in on themselves later in the film.
It is an isolating and intriguing approach that gives the story space to breathe. Award-winning cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s camera is left to float unhindered across the craggy, undulating, timeless moors; through dustbowl towns of angular, fired-brick estates and stuccoed terraces draped in St George’s flags; and amongst the glum, time-worn faces of these people, left alone in the moors, waiting to be swallowed whole by history.
Wolfe then wraps this loose-knit tapestry around a hard-boiled, simple chase narrative. The result is an intensely absorbing, painful, and truly unique portrayal of love on the run.
This approach also establishes an important sense of boredom: the rhythmic, plodding monotony of the gang’s task feels all the more brutal when freed from the easy excitement of a ‘chase movie’. With nothing but time on their hands, the various gang members become an unwitting source of gallows humour: telling each other of their dreams, play fighting in car parks, performing impressions and caricatures, and showing off pictures of pet parrots.
There is a flowing, observant humanism to the way Wolfe portrays these murderous criminals. These are not career gangsters – they are often clumsy and inept in their task – they are simply men who have become hardened and infected by the harsh world they inhabit. One match cut takes us from inside Barry and Tony’s car – where they are listening to old Tim Buckley records and discussing acupuncture – to the inside of Junaid’s car where they’re smoking weed and blasting Trap music. It’s this odd charm that makes their sudden bursts of horrific brutality all the more real, unavoidable, and unsettling.
There is a natural flow and rhetoric to the imagery of the film. Our victims – Laila and Aaron – are always indoors, always in the light, always encased by windows and nestled together like chicks. Their adversaries exist almost exclusively outdoors – in their cars, yearning, searching, like wolves sniffing in the darkness. This dichotomy holds more or less true up until the climactic moment when Barry lies in wait in the shadows outside a brightly lit convenience store, waiting for Aaron to leave. From this moment on, our victims are quite literally dragged out of their nest and forced to run for their lives.
From here, the film becomes a truly nightmarish vision. The disorientating darkness of the moors seems to play with the very foundations of time and space. Distances contract – one moment the pursuers are whole towns away, and then suddenly they’re right on our tails again. In such darkness, sound becomes our primary guide: the rustle of gorse whipping past and the sound of gurgling streams feels primal and strangled when combined with the unearthly din of Matthew Wolfe and Daniel Thomas Freeman’s primordial score. This overpowering chaos is interrupted only by flashes of torchlight and the screams of names and obscenities in the night. It is an intense and impressive section of the film that perhaps plays into Wolfe’s technical acuity as a renowned music promo director.
People looking for a film held together by action-packed, ‘tent pole’ moments may be disappointed, but they’d do well to consider how expertly the film fulfils the needs of a genre film without relying on the tropes of a genre film. Wolfe and his brother are clearly studious film enthusiasts, and the story leads us expertly through the beats of a chase narrative; but when we arrive at those important moments, they are given no extra attention. In this film murders, bar brawls, and car crashes are no more important than the long rides that connected them. It is a harsh and alienating vision, and one that Ellroy might be proud of.
The performances blend perfectly into Wolfe’s vision – in part due to his decision to cast non-actors from the region in which the film is set. With the exception of Gary Lewis, every member of the gang is a non-actor relying on Wolfe’s direction to bring his character to life. The whole is more important than any individual performance here. The characters are part of the landscape; the landscape is one of the characters.
Sameena Jabeen Ahmed’s first performance on camera is one that many more experienced actresses will weep over this festival season. Guided by two superb professional performances from Conor McCarron and Wasim Zakir, she has created an absorbing, surly, reluctant child in Laila. Wolfe’s singular vision of hopeless destruction finds its muse in this charming and powerful young actress. Her performance in the film’s fin al moments will exhaust the most reluctant of viewers. Her strength will pull out what is left of your breath like a vacuum, and leave you stumbling for the exits in need of respite.