A catatonic-looking man is lying face-up on the floor of a trashed house. A concerned poodle hides beneath a nearby couch. And the opening tinkles of that ultimate ’70s power ballad, “Without You,” begin to play. Soon, Harry Nilsson’s histrionics kick off: “I can’t liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiive! If living is without you!/I can’t liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiive! I can’t give anymore!”
So: Do you laugh, or do you shed a tear?
Whatever your response, it’s difficult to decipher the tone director Malcolm Venville intended for the opening scene of his feature debut, 44 Inch Chest. The rest of the film is easier to categorize: It’s a Reservoir Dogs take on heartbreak and revenge, a very stage-y, very Irish-feeling cousin to 2008’s In Bruges, matching the top-notch ensemble of the former but lacking the finesse of the latter. In this case, a hyper-articulate, curse-laden story line involving a cheerfully transgressive old boys’ club and a wronged husband amounts to little more than some amusing dialogue and a big That’s it? once the credits roll.
44 Inch Chest backtracks a bit after that opening scene to show the man in question, Colin (Ray Winstone), bringing flowers to his wife of 21 years, Liz (Joanne Whalley). But Liz tells him that she’s met someone else and their marriage is over. Colin’s dapper but sewer-dwelling friends try to soothe him, give him pep talks, tell him to man up already. They know, though, that there’s really only one way to make Colin feel better: Kidnap Liz’s lover and torture him senseless.
Colin & Co.—most colorfully including Old Man Peanut (John Hurt), Archie (Tom Wilkinson), and Meredith (Ian McShane)—jabber in a mostly empty room for quite a while before you realize that the boyfriend in question (Melvil Poupaud) is locked in the bureau behind them. He’s hooded and tied to a chair when they finally drag him out and leave Colin alone with him. And this is where the film goes completely Quentin, unabashedly lifting a Dogs scene in staging and execution: There’s Loverboy, as the guys call him, sweating his fate in the middle of the room. There’s Colin, circling Loverboy, asking him details about his relationship with his wife, alternately quiet and screaming as the time for very bad things to happen seemingly approaches. And in the stairwell, Colin’s friends inquire about each other’s family, tell stories, and give each other grief, with “cunt” punctuating their sentences as naturally as they breathe.
Written by Sexy Beast collaborators Louis Mellis and David Scinto, such scenes are entertaining, particularly the dynamic between Hurt’s old-school and highly pissy Peanut and McShane’s suavely homosexual Meredith. Winstone, always watchable, has some nice moments as well, including a great and impressively retch-free monologue about the tiny things that comprise true love (“She’s the queen, and you’re the bee…”). The film also has a few fantasy/hallucinatory sequences that lend it an interesting theatricality.
It would all amount to something great—if that weren’t all there was. After 95 minutes, the majority of it taking place in that one room, 44 Inch Chest ends with the cinematic equivalent of a shrug. Colin may or may not have gotten his satisfaction; his friends are all too ready to head off to a pub. And, like them, you’re left feeling a little bored and not terribly moved, as if what went down were no more intense than a night of carousing instead of bloodlust propelled by love gone bad.