Ever seen Wayne Kramer’s The Cooler? That’s the one where William H. Macy plays a walking null zone of good fortune in the employ of a Las Vegas casino to keep customers from winning too much; one pass by your blackjack table, and all of a sudden your hot streak turns positively hyperborean. You can put the title character in Robert Carlyle’s directorial debut, The Legend of Barney Thomson, in the same category, except that when he gets close to people they tend to end up dead. He’s a like a cooler for human life. He’s also tragically boring, tragically lonely, and plain old tragic. When the most exciting thing you’ve got going for you is a slowly mounting tally of accidental corpses at your feet, you know fate has dealt you a shit hand.
That summation probably makes The Legend of Barney Thomson more exciting than it actually is, which is not to say it isn’t exciting at all; it’s fine, and on occasion it even flirts with looney tune greatness, but mostly it’s held back by predictability. The film starts off by nearly presenting itself as an alternative to Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, coupling images of Barney (played by Carlyle himself) going about his day cutting hair with more grisly shots of dismembered human appendages—feet, hands and, just to make it clear what kind of movie we’re dealing with, a penis. You may suspect right off that Barney’s voiceover about his all-defining dullness is a smokescreen for a love of serial killing. If so, you suspect wrong.
Carlyle has adapted his film from author Douglas Lindsay’s novel, The Long Midnight of Barney Thomson. That means there’s only a scant amount of room to hold him accountable for the narrative’s failings, though it is entirely possible that much of the novel changed in the transition from page to screen. For Carlyle’s purposes, The Legend of Barney Thomson is an exploration of its protagonist and of how childhood neglect gives way to adult ennui. Barney, as a grown man, is almost too pathetic and stodgy to tolerate. He has his graces for certain—he appreciates decorum, for one thing—but he’s such a bummer by nature that we kind of wish he did butcher people in his spare time.
The problem with The Legend of Barney Thomson, though, is not Barney Thomson himself. It’s that the movie telegraphs its every twist and reveal, save for a choice few, and revealing those in a review format would be bad footing. Barney’s travails begin after he bumps off his boss at the barbershop by mistake and quickly becomes a person of interest in an ongoing police investigation involving a deranged murderer who hacks his victims to pieces and puts them in the mail, nice and grisly, just the way Stephen Sondheim likes it. Holdall (Ray Winstone), the inspector sent to question Barney, immediately assumes the poor sap’s guilt in both the slaying of his manager and the multiple slayings of various young men, and, well, you can probably guess where this black comedy of errors goes from there.
And that’s what sinks the film: It’s almost insultingly obvious, even right down to the identity of that mysterious, postally focused maniac, and of course we meet this person, because The Legend of Barney Thomson feels more like a checklist of expectations than a story. Think of the last cheapo slasher flick you watched, and think of how many times that flick ticked off boxes of genre tropes. That’s more or less the experience of watching The Legend of Barney Thomson, and in an alternate timeline where this movie is cast and crewed with less able and watchable talents, that would be fine. We could toss it on the pile of movies not worth one’s time and move on with our lives.
But Carlyle is an adept filmmaker, and his cast is pretty well stacked, which makes the whole affair even more frustrating. Carlyle reins in his wild-eyed, jittery energy and portrays Barney as a quiet sort of basket case, Winstone upends his tough guy persona by making fun of it, and Emma Thompson and Tom Courtenay—playing, respectively, Barney’s mother and Holdall’s superior—sit on the film’s edges, cussing up storms as the picture demands. (Also worth noting: Ashley Jensen, playing Holdall’s professional rival with amped-up swagger.) Together, they’re all good fun, but only in service to a film that’s too tame and too formulaic to suit them. Like Barney himself, The Legend of Barney Thomson is trite in its very DNA, and no amount of tinkering or talent can change that.
Director: Robert Carlyle
Writers: Richard Cowan, Colin McLaren, Douglas Lindsay
Starring: Robert Carlyle, Emma Thompson, Ray Winstone, Ashley Jensen, Tom Courtenay, Brian Pettifer
Release Date: March 11, 2016
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has contributed to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth.Movies.Death. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65 percent craft beer.