It’s a shame that my first review for this site has to be a hatchet job, but Bypass, the new film from Duane Hopkins (Better Things), leaves me with no choice. Here is a film so unsure of what it wants to be that it ultimately ends up as nothing: it is a redundant, instantly forgettable exercise. It’s sad to have to slate a small British film this way, and, to be fair, there is a certain amount of ambition involved, but ambition is nothing without execution, and Hopkins and co. end up executing nothing but themselves.
There’s even a decent story hidden in Bypass, but it is overshadowed by fatal missteps in direction, performance, dialogue and score. Foremost of these is Hopkins’s direction, which bounces from one stylistic mode to another without any apparent reason—nothing is used purposefully, and modes are tossed aside for other modes seemingly for the sake of it. One early sequence involving a foot-chase starts off in slow-motion before cutting to that shaky hand-held camera approach that went out of fashion a decade ago. Then it takes life as a tracking shot intercut with ponderous close-ups of characters external to the chase. All of this is scored, initially, by a jutting, pounding drum-beat before dissipating into something slow and melancholy and ultimately more befitting of a Terrence Malick montage-score. This is a shame, because some earlier shots—shots reflected in glass, shots showing characters off-centred or skewered by door frames and such—at least show that Hopkins has some kind of eye for direction.
If you’re wondering why I’m yet to mention anything relating to plot, it’s because I prefer to write not what a film is about, but how it is about it (to paraphrase Roger Ebert). A little plot detail is usually necessary, however, so let’s just say that Bypass follows the life of Tim (George MacKay) as he struggles to make enough money to keep his younger sister afloat in a world of council estates and criminal behaviour.
Tim is one of those peculiar movie characters who has more go wrong for him in the course of one film than most people ever do: His brother is in jail, his sister is a truant, his dad doesn’t want to know him, and he keeps seeing visions of his dead mother; moreover he has debt-collectors after him, is constantly threatened by the bloke he slings stolen goods for and what little money he does have gets taken off him by the Bigger Boys. He’s also developed a nasty rash, vomiting and fainting and blinking at bright-light to boot (the symptoms suggest meningitis but this is never confirmed). And, just when you think “at least his teen girlfriend isn’t pregnant” (something I literally wrote in my notes) she hands him a pregnancy test and poor old Lilly (Charlotte Spencer) is up-the-duff as well. As with so much of this film, it’s too much.
Often in independent British films of Bypass’s nature, there are performances that stand-out, usually because the low-key settings and sparse direction allow for an ideal performance space for young, working-class British actors—think the cast of early Shane Meadows films like A Room for Romeo Brass or Dead Man’s Shoes. But there isn’t a performance worthy of note in Bypass, and George MacKay’s Tim is as charismatically vapid (despite a striking pair of blue, aqueous eyes) as the film is dramatically vacant.
I wanted to like Bypass more: its approach to British crime feels spot-on, with money stashed in shoe-boxes rather than safes and deals going down in the cluttered rooms of tiny flats rather than in fancy cars or clubs. But this approach is neglected, and instead Hopkins finishes his film with a moment of Malick-esque profundity that it frankly hasn’t earned.