Mostly, what Paul Andrew Williams’ “London to Brighton” (2006) has in its threadbare arsenal, shy of budget and time and scale, is a small propane tank of hot nerve. This is the kind of indie that opens in mid-adrenaline-spike (two women, bloody and beaten, burst into a public restroom, running for their lives) and proceeds to paint a sparse portrait of modern life that slowly constricts on the two protagonists like a fatal case of lockjaw.
It’s an exercise in economy and efficiency, of course — Williams’ “London” is one of the most memorable résumé films of recent years, but it’s still a résumé movie. If you want to send up flags about your ability to glue your audience’s eyes to the screen, this is one way to do it. (Much to the disappointment of British critics, who loved “London to Brighton,” Williams has since been spinning his wheels in psycho-killer genre ditties.) Titled ironically from a line of the mod-era T. Rex hit “London Boys,” the movie is a bottle rocket — hand-sized, but lit and out of control.
At the outset, something very bad has happened, obviously, but Williams doesn’t “reveal” plot integers, he lets us realize them amidst the panic. We’re in that bathroom for a little while before we see that while one of the “women” is in fact a seasoned East End hooker with a massive shiner (Lorraine Stanley), the other is a skinny 11-year-old girl (Georgia Groome), both hyperventilating and spattered with blood, and both, we are soon to understand via a malevolent pimp, running from a crime boss for the previously mentioned very bad thing. The cast, suspended in a permanent state of feverish anxiety, are all excellent and convincing (though I could’ve done with more of a variation on the cool, culturally refined lizard-king mega-gangster, as partial to bloodletting as he is to opera).
Hopping a train to Brighton, the two fugitives establish a sisterly holding pattern, with the forces of evil fury hot on their heels, but to say more would expose all that “London to Brighton” is to daylight. There’s nothing else to it, except its sweaty tension and forward movement — no subtext, no larger cultural ideas, nothing but realistic doom. Williams matter-of-factly cuts between three or four threads of narrative, but they’re all completely focused on the dilemma at hand, in a way that recalls several simple, tight-fisted noirs like Richard Fleischer’s “The Narrow Margin” (1952), which were far more neglected or taken for granted at the time, generally, than many lean Sundance-style humdingers are today.
It seems that yesterday’s no-bullshit crime-drama programmer is today’s white-knuckle résumé indie, for good or ill — filmmakers then and now serve time in the small-boned genre pits in order to trade up into bigger and more prestigious projects. (Few viewers of, say, Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Hard Eight,” or Neill Dela Llana and Ian Gamazon’s “Cavite,” or Courtney Hunt’s “Frozen River” don’t half-imagine there in the dark the career opportunities that await those filmmakers.) Americans, at least, like their pulp films large, but at the same time the adventurous five percent of the public (those who don’t crave the tinnitus and pink eye they’d get from “Transformers 2”) take the résumé indie as a concise and earthly gift from movie heaven.
Films like Williams’ nasty micro-potboiler are certainly closer to the real, bottom-billed noirs than the big-budget noir remakes the studios routinely return to (like the horrible 1990 version of “Narrow Margin,” or the upcoming remake of Fritz Lang’s “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt”), and for those that prefer to swap the deafening bastard nonsense of blockbusters for the low-budget equivalent of a finely honed knife edge, Williams’ thriller is their summer movie.