English council-estate miserabilism is refracted through a Spaghetti Western lens — again — in Wild Bill, the actor Dexter Fletcher’s directorial debut.
Just as Paddy Considine, Daniel Barber and Shane Meadows did before him in Tyrannosaur, Harry Brown and Once Upon a Time in the Midlands, Fletcher has whisked together a batter of Old West motifs, folded it into a social-realist baking tray and slammed it in the oven at gas mark eight. The result is slightly soggy in the middle, but still enjoyably warm and chewy.
After eight years in Parkhurst, former drug dealer “Wild” Bill Hayward (Charlie Creed-Miles) moseys on back to Newham, east London, where his young sons Dean (Will Poulter) and Jimmy (Sammy Williams) are eking out a sorry existence in their high-rise homestead. Half-compelled by social services, half-blackmailed by 15-year-old Dean, who knows the location of his dad’s cocaine stash, Bill reluctantly pledges to go straight, and the trio rebuild their family against the apt backdrop of London 2012 renewal. But his former gang-mates (Neil Maskell, Leo Gregory and Iwan Rheon, all delivering keenly pitched villain turns) have other ideas, and want Bill off the scene and 11-year-old Jimmy as a courier in their drug-dealing operation.
There are a few typical first?film fumbles here: much of the boys’ dialogue is overwritten, a tart-with-a-heart role is underdeveloped despite Liz White’s best efforts, and a saloon-bar brawl feels less climactic than inevitable.
But Fletcher, who also co-writes, hits some promising highs, too. An extended skit about a late birthday present is uproariously funny, and some directors go an entire career without crafting an image as richly layered and disarmingly beautiful as the paper aeroplane flight that acts as Wild Bill’s narrative pivot. There’s more than enough good stuff here to whet the appetite for Fletcher’s follow?up.