Monday, June 5, 2017


Are we secretly afraid of barbers? We put our heads in their hands and let them near us with scissors and razors: instruments of death. They're usually complete strangers to us, unless we're a regular customer. Still, that first time is a little bit odd, isn't it? A few have nipped my ear and accidentally drawn blood from my neck. That is, I hope it was an accident. (They always apologize, but how do I know they didn't do it on purpose?) The murderous barber has been a stock character for decades, from Sweeney Todd to Monty Python's Flying Circus. Scott Glenn recently starred in The Barber, where he was a serial killer who cut hair by day. Boston's longest running theatrical production (since 1979!) is Shear Madness, about a murder in a salon. Perhaps we harbor a primal fear of these mysterious people with their sharp implements, a fear that goes back to medieval times when barbers also served as surgeons. Barney Thomson (2015) directed by and starring Robert Carlyle, doesn't explain the mystique, but it's another one for the deadly barber canon.

In the first scene of Barney Thomson we see where Barney ranks among his fellow hair-cutters. "You hover over customers like a shitty cloud," he's told by a colleague. "You're like a haunted tree." Barney, as played by Carlyle, is a squirrely type who occasionally displays a temper. If you've ever wondered how barbers feel when their chair is free but you tell them you'll wait for the other guy, Carlyle lets us know. "Am I so bad?" he howls at one customer who'd rather not let dull old Barney cut his hair. Poor Barney. He's a bore and he can't help it. He has delusions of grandeur, though, and wishes he were some sort of legendary character. When he accidentally kills a co-worker during an after work scuffle, he's on his way. With some assistance from his haggard old mother (played with glee by Emma Thompson), we're soon awash in body parts, all wrapped neatly like sides of beef at the butcher's. 

It's routine stuff with slabs of grim humor and bodies stacking up. What makes it intriguing is the local color. Carlyle and cinematographer Fabian Wagner shot the entire movie around Glasgow, Scotland, creating an atmosphere that is at times cold and drab, and at others as vivid as a David Fincher horror scene. Is Glasgow really such a landscape of dingy shops, dog tracks, and carnivals? Are the elderly ladies really so keen on Engelbert Humperdinck and old Eddie Cochran hits? Could a pair of little fiends like Barney and his mum really get away with their macabre practices? A bitter cop (played by Ray Winstone, the U.K.'s Dennis Franz) calls Glasgow a "shithole," and delivers a memorable monologue about old-time Scottish flyweight, Benny Lynch. He could've been so much more had he only left Glasgow and the bloodsuckers behind, laments the cop. Well, at least they have bingo nights.

Emma Thompson has played weird old ladies before- twice as the strangely magical Nanny McPhee - and she obviously likes to slap on the makeup and cackle like a crone. As Barney's  bitter and caustic mother, Thompson is swinging for the fences in every scene. It's a brilliant performance, larger than life, but also laced with nuance. I love the way she enters a bus full of other old ladies on the way to a bingo hall, waves them off with a flip of her hand, then slyly reaches into her purse to produce an oversized troll doll. Delightfully over the top, repulsive, and pushing for new ways to be reprehensible, it's as if Thompson decided to set a pace no one else could follow, and increased it throughout the movie. By the end, it's almost impossible to look at her. Barney Thomson didn't get much notice or distribution in America - my guess is the Scottish accents were too thick for distributors - but it earned several awards in Scotland and England and is now available on the Tribeca movie app. It's worth seeing if only for Thompson's inspired work. Does she overdo it? Some might think so, but I don't. After all, there's a line near the movie's end where Barney says, "I was born of a monster." Thompson is merely living up to what was written.

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