Richard Jobson’s debut feature has fared well on the festival trail, calling in at Toronto, Edinburgh and now Leeds, where it played as part of the festival’s UK Film Week alongside Gifted, starring Kay Mellor, and the cricket comedy Wondrous Oblivion, directed by Paul Morrison. The film’s journey to the big screen has been a long and interesting one itself: Jobson’s script has its origins in both an earlier performance piece and a short novel.
16 Years of Alcohol opens, appropriately enough, in a pub. It’s here that we first meet Frankie Mac, our narrator-protagonist, portrayed by Ian de Caestaecker and Kevin McKidd in turn. (Jobson, who has a singing cameo, seems to provide Frankie’s intermittent, retrospective voiceover himself.) Set in Edinburgh, the film chronicles Frankie’s life concentrating on three separate eras and ages: his childhood in the late 60s, young adulthood in the 70s and present-day maturity.
The first third plays as a coming-of-age, loss-of-innocence drama, as the young Frankie witnesses a sexual indiscretion that cracks his charismatic father’s flawless veneer. The sins of the father send Frankie to the bottle at a tender age and are offered as the primary cause for his later incarnation as a sinister skinhead in the film’s second section. By this time, emotional damage has given birth to unbridled sadism, as Frankie and his thuggish crew embrace a rumble with anyone willing to take them on.
Kevin McKidd, who broke out in Trainspotting and was recently seen playing George Grosz in Max, assumes the central role from hereon in, and manages to combine an unquestionable level of menace with a sense of under-the-surface tenderness. He’s perfect for the part, his visage bringing to mind both Paul Bettany and Daniel Craig, not to mention Jobson himself. Frankie’s hidden sensitivity wins him the romantic interest of an artist, played by Laura Fraser, the first of two women who present themselves as saviour figures. When Fraser’s character loses faith in him she is replaced by Beautiful Creatures’ Susan Lynch in a freewheeling final act that finds the film’s anti-hero entering the AA process.
Writer-director-producer Richard Jobson, who provided the original story for Damien O’Donnell’s Heartlands, is probably best known as a film critic and former frontman for punk rock group The Skids. These twin passions – music and movies – shine through his debut. Each of the film’s three eras is scored appropriately, with Frankie’s wayward teenage years playing out to the sound of, among others, The Skids. Jobson uses music as a kind of interior monologue, rather like Martin Scorsese, and in one specific scene – a brutal encounter in a club toilet – seems to pay homage to Reservoir Dogs’ warehouse torture sequence. As a psychotic hoodlum precariously holds a switchblade in someone’s mouth, Bryan Ferry’s ‘Love is the Drug’ reverberates in the background.
The work of a seasoned cineaste, 16 Years of Alcohol is littered with Nouvelle Vague-style references, some of which work better than others. There’s a recurring Westerns motif from the start and the proliferation of clocks in the later scenes evokes High Noon, as well as Rumblefish. Frankie has a poster for A Clockwork Orange tacked to his bedroom wall and Alex’s droogs – and their breed of violence-with-a-smile – inform both his dress and behavioural codes. In a nod to the era’s kung fu infatuation, a bare-chested Bruce Lee adorns the same walls, inspiring Frankie to rehearse martial arts moves – a funny moment quickly undercut with unexpected violence.
16 Years of Alcohol is a meticulously detailed work, and a huge amount of thought seems to have gone into each beat, each word, each image. One arresting scene finds an anguished, alienated Frankie sitting between cobweb-covered parents, who face each other with a kind of catatonic hostility. Jobson’s attention to colour is immaculate – witness the rich, whisky-warm hues of Frankie’s barroom upbringing and the stark black and white of his bovver boy uniform.
Like Lynne Ramsey, whose Ratcatcher seems another reference point, the director has a real talent for atmosphere. In the early part of the film, it’s the smallest details that resonate the loudest, as the impressive sound design elevates the noises of an echo in a bar, static on a record player or the brush of a woman’s illicit touch. Jobson seems to know his locations as well as he knows his characters and his sensitivity to a sense of place produces some striking perspectives from Edinburgh’s back streets. Considering its low, low budget, the film’s period recreation, too, is impressive.
This is a first feature and there are a few flaws and inconsistencies en route. The film’s sprawling latter portion is perhaps a little too undisciplined and its deliberately slow, careful pace may distance some viewers. Peculiarly, Jobson’s attention also seems to sway from the apparent focal point of alcoholism. Such gripes aside, Jobson’s distinguished debut shows him as a force to be reckoned with. Arthouse cinema with a capital ‘A’, 16 Years of Alcohol contains a hard-edged lyricism beneath that grimly raw title. Like Gary Oldman’s Nil By Mouth, this is unabashedly personal filmmaking – a sort of cinematic blues with both heart and guts.