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Barney Thomson

March 11, 2016
Barney Thomson

It seems only appropriate that Glaswegian actor Robert Carlyle’s first time in the director’s chair is for a black comedy. Based on a novel by Scottish crime writer Douglas Lindsay, Barney Thomson shows a certain promise. Unfortunately the resulting movie is gangly and uneven, caught in an awkward creative adolescence.

Carlyle himself plays the titular Barney, a barber working in the East End of Glasgow. Or, rather, not really working much anymore. He’s content to cut his customers’ hair in calm, workmanlike silence. This worked fine when James Henderson (James Cosmo) gave him his seat at Henderson’s barber shop years ago. And though the seats haven’t been updated since the 1960s, the clientele evidently has. When Wullie Henderson (Stephen McCole) took over, his friends took to hanging around, talking about boxing and such all day. Barney just doesn’t fit in anymore.

All of which makes for a clear motive for murder when Wullie tries to fire Barney after the shop closes one day, even though it’s actually just an accident when Wullie slips on a wet floor and goes down chest-first on a pair of scissors. Fretful, anxious Barney only makes things worse when he wraps Wullie up in garbage bags and sticks him in the trunk of his car, where it’s only a matter of time until his slovenyl, overbearing mother, Cemolina (Emma Thompson), sees the body.

Worse yet, Glasgow is dealing with a serial killer. Five victims so far, with no clues beyond the amputated parts sent by post to each one’s next of kin. The lead detective, Holdall (Ray Winstone), is up against it, and the chief (Tom Courtenay) gives the case to his rival (Ashley Jensen). Naturally, Holdall pulls Wullie’s disappearance, which he starts to believe connects up to the serial killings. And this puts poor Barney square in his sights.

Naturally, things escalate from there, and boy, do they get out of hand. Colorful characters are the stock-in-trade of dark crime comedies like this one, but Barney Thomson feels like it has more than its share. There’s a frenetic buzz that keeps us as bewildered and befuddled as Barney himself. And while I get the idea of putting us inside his head-space, it ends up feeling like the movie is just making things up as it goes along.

Besides, if we’re supposed to identify with Barney — not just to feel for him but to feel like him — then the movie has a hard time working as a character study, figuring out what makes this guy tick. All we’re left to fall back on is a sense of time passing by and leaving people like Barney behind. Henderson’s may well be the only open shop on its block, to look at it, and the Barrowland Ballroom where Cemolina goes to bingo and dancing with other aging pensioners seems like a relic. And while Glasgow’s heyday might be in the past, this story doesn’t really spend enough time developing that theme either.

All the pieces are in place to turn this story into a deliciously dark little comedy, but the execution is scattered and never seems to find its footing. Carlyle is perfectly suited to play Barney Thomson, but directing Barney Thomson still seems a wee bit out of his reach.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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