‘The Ballad of Billy McCrae’ Is A Painfully Human Story That’s Far Too Mundane To Be An Effective Thriller: Review

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The Ballad of Billy McCrae is an interesting thriller brought to life by a talented cast. However, its attempt to portray gritty reality comes at the cost of excitement. There is a scarcity of action, and the few exciting peaks that the film does have are downplayed and underwhelming.

Taking film noir influences and giving them a modern twist, The Ballad of Billy McCrae is the latest psychological thriller from Welsh director Chris Crow. Delving into themes of sex and crime, the film follows the lives of three central characters and explores the tumultuous relationships they all share.

★★★✰✰

After an abrupt and unexpected plot twist, the final scene of The Ballad of Billy McCrae is the very same scene that opens this British thriller. The cyclical effect of this—particularly once you have watched the scene again—serves to highlight the core focus of the film: human life. Whilst Billy McCrae is a thriller containing the typical trademarks of the genre (think murder, violence and some tension), underlying its generic elements is a study of humanity, and especially its dysfunction.

Billy McCrae explores human life through the story of Chris Blythe (Ian Virgo), an ambitious young man who returns home to Wales after (very suspiciously) making, and subsequently losing, a fortune in Canada. Back at home without a penny to his name, Blythe begins to work for the titular Billy McCrae (David Hayman). McCrae is a local quarry owner, notoriously influential in the town. He also has an enchanting daughter, Elen (Sianad Gregory), who Blythe almost immediately begins sleeping with. It’s this tangle of lives that the film explores, delving into the issues of all three characters and exposing the darkness inherent in each of them. 

In exploring these three entangled lives, Billy McCrae successfully crafts a believable story that feels painfully human. The overused trope of good vs evil is avoided. Instead we are presented with three complex characters, none of whom are all good or all bad. All three characters lie and scheme, and it is not always clear who the audience should be rooting for. Although, this is precisely what director Chris Crow was aiming for: for him, Billy McCrae is “a film about flawed people.”

Of course, Crow’s intention couldn’t have been translated onscreen without the help of an immensely talented cast. The three leads, Virgo, Hayman and Gregory, are all ferocious presences in their own right, and when they come together they have a brilliant, natural chemistry. In particular, Virgo and Gregory perfectly capture the uneasy dynamic between Elen and Blythe. Their relationship is brimming with sexual tension, but beneath this there is a deep sense of unease between the two which builds throughout the film, and ultimately comes to a head at the film’s climax. Their relationship is one of the most compelling sources of tension within the film.

Unfortunately, this relationship is one of the only sources of tension in the film. For a film supposedly in the thriller genre, the lack of nail-biting moments is disappointing. True, there was some violence and a couple of deaths, but these brief dramatic moments never fulfilled their potential and felt vastly undeserved. One example is the plot twist at the film’s finale. It had the potential to be massively shocking, but instead fell flat as a result of its uninspired reveal and lack of screen time.

Moreover, there was an abundance of mundane realism, with large sections of the runtime featuring nothing much happening at all. Of course, character-building scenes are necessary to allow the characters to grow on the audience and to develop the story. However, the frequency of these dull scenes went far beyond what was required. Consequently, many of the scenes felt slow. You could count on one hand the number of times The Ballad of Billy McCrae has you on the edge of your seat. 

Despite this, Billy McCrae does succeed in its intention of authentically portraying human lives in all their complexity and darkness. This is aided, in no small part, by the film’s cinematography. The choice to use degraded 70s lenses adds to the rawness of the film, with natural sunlight and flares streaming through many of the scenes. Unfortunately though, this focus on realism merges into mundanity on many occasions. The result is a film that had the potential to become a well-developed and engaging thriller, but sadly falls short on account of the imbalance between its character-building moments and suspenseful sequences.

The Verdict 

The Ballad of Billy McCrae is an interesting thriller brought to life by a talented cast. However, its attempt to portray gritty reality comes at the cost of excitement. There is a scarcity of action, and the few exciting peaks that the film does have are downplayed and underwhelming.

Words by Verity Cartwright


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