First-time director Kieron Hawkes’s stylish thriller Piggy is well-acted, has a script that keeps one guessing even after the film has concluded; the direction is tight and slick… but it stubbornly refuses to do what it says on the tin.
Social misfit Joe (Martin Compston) zombies through his pointless life, self-medicating with marijuana and avoiding all social contact with the exception of his older brother John (Neil Maskell, fresh from the far more accomplished Kill List). John coaxes Joe out of his shell and into the pub where, one night, the younger brother unintentionally offends Jamie (Ed Skrein), a local thug, and his mates, setting off a chain of events that leads to John’s brutal murder. Driven back to his solitude by guilt and grief, Joe is once more drawn out by Piggy (Paul Anderson), ostensibly an old friend of his brother’s who offers comfort in the form of brutal revenge. One by one they abduct and wreak bloody vengeance on the members of the gang who robbed Joe of his only companion.
Both the film’s leads are strong; Scotsman Compston plays North London loser Joe with aplomb and Anderson is chilling as Piggy. While the putative protagonist is the former character, the entire film rests on the latter: Hawkes states that “The film’s about the morality of what he does. He’s sort of a superhero, but one who’s incredibly fucked up.” Piggy is a Tyler Durden-alike, payback his drug rather than chaos, egging Joe on and invading every inch of his private space – physical and psychological – until “I didn’t know which thoughts were mine and which were Piggy’s”. The comparison with David Fincher’s Fight Club goes further – the film’s style is very similar, and throughout there is a sense that Piggy may not be real, that he may be merely a construct to compensate for Joe’s passivity.
The dual-personality theory makes a great deal of sense: Joe is sleepless, depressed, withdrawn, takes drugs; Piggy is everything he is not: all action, forever planning and doing – and most tellingly (it would seem), when their prey is helpless, Joe stands back and Piggy takes over, tucking into the overwhelming violence with a grim and gluttonous pleasure – the active counterpart to Joe’s nauseous narcoleptic.
The title itself evokes William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, another tale of violence spinning out of control, only the titular “Piggy” of this film is all Jack Merridew – duplicitous, amoral, unstoppable and charismatically manipulative. Joe could be Ralph if he wanted to – he could refuse to take part in the carnage, but he doesn’t even invoke the conch, merely stands by and allows events to wash over him.
So what’s not to like? On paper the film sounds like a cracker, British crime at its best, the new Get Carter. But there’s no meat on these very bare bones, scant clothing on this emperor. As much attention is paid to Joe’s dysfunctional relationship with his late brother’s girlfriend, Claire (Louise Dylan, who does her best to bring personality to a mere cypher with no agency or power of her own) as to the revenge plot, resulting in scenes which are repetitive, dull and unnecessary. Jamie’s baddie buddies (including Jumayn Hunter, Josh Herdman – Goyle from the Harry Potter films – and Roland Manookian) are cut from identical templates. Nothing sets them apart, there are no redeeming moments for any of them, and it is hard to care when Piggy slaughters them.
Sadly enough, one can say little more for John. Two-dimensional at best, it is hard to see what about this unremarkable man inspires Joe to occasional flashes of humanity (and, of course, complicity in a blood-caked killing spree) – even if he was the kid’s brother.
Piggy just doesn’t have enough solid plot in it to justify its 106-minute running time. The writer-director admits in the DVD extra features that he abandoned his more art-house projects to write it because “in this country people quite like violent films”, and frankly this fact juts out of the film like a broken thumb. It may be that Hawkes broke said thumb against his nose in trying to snub the system that denied him the funding he needed to make the kind of films he wanted to, but his attempt to indict an industry that prefers thrillers to art-house winds up more an indictment of his own compromise.
Perhaps Hawkes was trying to smuggle in some of his relationship drama in the scenes between Joe and Claire (if so, it is a dismal failure, because if this is any indication of his ability, he simply cannot write for women), but that effort would have been better spent on developing the parts of the film that actually do work, establishing more than just the two lead characters, punching up the dialogue and cutting down the running time to a tight 90 minutes of revenge drama. Because, while one gets the sense that somewhere, buried deep inside, there is a really good movie trying to get out, Piggy is really just Jack’s pancreas’s total waste of a Sunday afternoon.