Scottish actor Robert Carlyle built his career on intense and often twisted characters in hit British films like Trainspotting and The Full Monty. So it's no surprise his directorial debut arrives in the form of Barney Thomson, an absurdist black comedy involving a serial killer who delivers body parts to next of kin by post.
Carlyle's film is based on Scottish crime writer Douglas Lindsay's The Long Midnight of Barney Thomson, the first in the author's long series of novels and short stories about a dull but murderous barber in Glasgow, Scotland. It rides a wave of darkly comic performances to a finale that would make Quentin Tarantino feel very much at home. The film's many working-class Scottish characters might describe it all as "a wee bit of fun," but that seems more than enough to justify the effort.
It's with some compassion that Thomson's boss Henderson (James Cosmo) describes Thomson's sour demeanor behind the barber's chair with "It's like you've had a charisma bypass." To everyone's surprise, he also has an unfortunate knack for accidental killings. Meanwhile, a serial killer has been terrorizing Glasgow with seemingly random crimes. A bumbling and constantly infighting police department can't keep its murder investigations straight but does keep the story humming along. The film's character-based humor blunts the impact of its grisly elements and the laughs come at a steady pace.
Carlyle's unlikely secret weapon is barely recognizable Emma Thompson, cast wonderfully against type as Thomson's comically acerbic and cold-hearted mother Cemolina. She's a tough broad with dark secrets of her own. Her exaggerated Scottish brogue is the source of much hilarity, and you'd never suspect that Thompson is only two years older than Carlyle in real life. Her range as an actor comes in handy when the film briefly turns serious in a final confrontation between mother and son, where Cemolina unleashes a lifetime of barely controlled frustration.
Remarkably, legendary British actor Sir Tom Courtenay gets in on the fun with a droll turn as the long-suffering Glasgow police chief. Character actor Ray Winstone (Hugo) and Ashley Jensen (Topsy-Turvy) lead a supporting cast that manages to make a virtue of intentionally over-the-top performances.
Barney Thomson is vague about when its story is set. The vibe suggests the 1950s and early '60s — there are no mobile phones or modern cars, and the soundtrack features era-specific artists like Duane Eddy and Roy Orbison — but avoiding the mountain of particulars required by a period piece saves resources and helps maintain the film's no-nonsense, low-budget aesthetic.
Glasgow native Carlyle changed locations written into the screenplay (adapted from Lindsay's book by Colin McLaren and Richard Cowan) to reflect his own experiences of the famously gritty yet vibrant city, adding a touch of authenticity to the film's sometimes too-farcical story. It's a solid directorial debut for the 54-year-old actor, who initially signed to star in the film and later was offered the chance to direct. But Thompson steals the show.