Welcome to the Punch

Tuesday 11th February 2014

Director Eran Creevy’s first film Shifty was a slow moving but entertaining and surprisingly subtle British crime film. His second effort, Welcome to the Punch, is similarly slow moving but slightly less entertaining and a lot less subtle. The characters here aren’t as quirky or well-drawn as those in Shifty. In fact, the strongest indicator of a character’s personality in Welcome to the Punch is his beard. The first thing I noticed was that everyone in the film seemed to have very obvious facial hair. Seemed a bit strange but… ok… hairy faces have become oddly fashionable in recent years, who am I to judge? The facial hair thing was so obvious I even found myself mildly surprised when a woman appeared onscreen and failed to have a beard. Despite the distraction caused by all that hair I resolved to concentrate on other aspects of the film so I could judge it fairly and write a balanced review.

But the beard thing got the better of me, so here is an analysis of all the beards in Welcome to the Beard. Sorry. PunchWelcome to the Punch. I’ll proceed in order of each beard’s offensiveness to my eyes, in descending order from most to least offensive.

So first up, McAvoy himself. If there’s one sure way to make James McAvoy’s face more annoying it’s definitely to sparsely coat the bottom half of it in coarse ginger hair that looks like it was left behind when an orangutan got him in a headlock. Thanks go to Eran Creevy for discovering this alarming fact. The loosely sculpted nature of McAvoy’s facial adornment indicates clearly that his character, Max Lewinsky, is a policeman on the edge of losing it. He hasn’t quite got to the full beard stage that would denote a complete loss of sanity, he’s hovering at the slightly unhinged ragged-goatee-and-‘tache combo. The gingerness of the hair adds a distinct air of creepiness to his face, we immediately gather that he’s lonely, obsessed and socially awkward. It goes without saying that a man with a beard as Scottish as this will cling onto the tiniest grudge for all eternity. His integrity is also likely to be called into question at a moment’s notice by even his closest friends (if he has any, which is doubtful, judging by his beard). However, his beard does mark him as a man who has forsaken all semblance of normality in the pursuit of a singular obsession; in this case the obsession is the apprehension of a certain thief. So he has his own warped sense of duty and honour.

In second place is Johnny Harris, who embraced the majesty of a full beard but forgot the sense of irony with which such a facial decoration should always be worn. Harris’ beard identifies him as the lone wolf; a man with no scruples who will kill anyone at the slightest provocation. Except his gran. No really, he loves his gran. You can tell by the beard. And the fact that she’s the only character he says a pleasant word to in the whole film. Yes, Harris’ character Dean Warns is the unhinged psycho-for-hire. His thick but carefully trimmed beard tells us he’s ex-military; he hides his psychosis behind a neat veneer of discipline. Although Warns is a complete lunatic, he isn’t without honour; he values the completion of his mission over his own life and that of his beloved gran. As his chin-mullet clearly indicates Warns isn’t afraid to get grizzly, he’s a wild man clinging onto his duty with the tenacity of a Rottweiler. To Warns, his beard is a symbol of his manliness, his integrity and his hard-man status. To everyone else, his beard identifies him as a social outcast and probable paedophile.

In third place we have Peter Mullan. His character Roy Edwards is the grizzled veteran of many criminal enterprises, and the hints of grey in his well-groomed stubble indicate this without a hint of subtlety. Edwards’ facial hair is a signifier of reliability, honesty and, above all, age. He’s the old guy. Every middle aged criminal genius (see fourth place) needs an old, wise dude to make him look younger. Edwards is the guy you go to when you need a criminal shoulder to cry on, although his ancient stubble will probably give you carpet burn. He is the giver of sound advice, the selfless wingman who was never quite ruthless enough to be the boss himself but doesn’t have a problem with getting his hands (and his beard) bloody for the right reasons. And of course, when the time inevitably comes for him to sacrifice himself for his younger boss (who he probably thinks of as the son he never had…) his silvery beard is there as a constant reminder to us that he’s had his time. He’s old. He’s past it. Of course his death’s upsetting, he’s a nice guy. But it’s not as upsetting as it would have been if he was younger… that’s what his beard’s really there for. To remind us that he probably would have quietly died in his sleep in a few days time anyway, if he hadn’t first been mercilessly shot by a psychopath. BECAUSE HE’S OLD.

In fourth place is Mark Strong, the best actor in this beard-fest by a long way. Strong’s character Jacob Sternwood is the middle-aged criminal on the run from the police for a heist he pulled several years ago. As such he has just the right amount of stubble engineered onto his chiseled jaw to indicate he hasn’t had time to shave, but not so much that it looks like he’s growing it deliberately. His is a beard of temporary neglect. It shows that he’s a rugged man, a man who gets things done and isn’t afraid to sacrifice creature comforts in pursuit of his ultimate goal. Temporarily. I mean, he’s obviously shaved at least once during his police-sponsored sabbatical, or else he’d have a hairy waterfall running from his chin to his nutsack by now. It’s just obvious he hasn’t shaved today. He has weightier things on his mind. Something tragic has happened to his son and he needs to look suitably haggard for us to understand what he’s going through. It might sound as though Sternwood’s beard is just as unsubtle and offensive as the other three on this list, but if there’s one thing I find creepier than a man with a beard it’s a man without a single hair on his entire head. Because of this, Sternwood’s beard has gained some respectability for balancing out the glaring lack of hair on the rest of his head. The final point I’d like to make about his facial hair is that it lets us know he’s a good guy deep down, despite his obvious dark side. I say this because the length of his beard implies that he does normally shave and therefore is fairly respectable, he just hasn’t had time recently. His usual grooming has been put aside so that he can do whatever is necessary to avenge his son.

So that was the beard breakdown. Now, obviously there are more than four characters in this film and I’m not counting Warn’s gran’s beard because she’s a very minor character… so what of the rest of the cast? This is where it gets a bit confusing. You see, it seems that a lack of hair on a character’s face indicates one of two things: one, she’s a woman; or two, he’s a spineless weasel of a man with no integrity or honour whatsoever.

Let’s deal with the women first. Aside from Warns’ gran, there are two women, neither of whom have enough screen time for me to have taken their names onboard… so let’s call them The Policewoman and The Other Woman Whose Job I Can’t Quite Recall (we’ll abbreviate that to The Other Woman). The Policewoman’s lack of facial decoration doesn’t really tell us much about her character and that’s presumably because, judging by the rest of her performance, she has no character. So that’s that.

The Other Woman’s lack of facial decoration puts her squarely in the spineless weasel category (I’m ever so slightly confused as to whether it also means she’s a man)… at any rate she’s a spineless weasel. Oh yeah, and she’s corrupt. She’s dishonest and motivated by money rather than honour or a sense of duty like the bearded characters. Her lack of beard tells us she plans to sell everyone out and would rather deceive a loyal psycho like Warns into doing her dirty work than get blood on her own hands. Spineless weasel.

Then there are some clean-shaven men. David Morrissey’s character is the police chief who’s so two-faced he can even pull off pretending to be McAvoy’s friend. Definitely a spineless weasel. He manipulates just about everyone in the film so that he can collect a big wad of money but when it goes wrong he tries to have his ginger-bearded buddy killed and wash his hands of the whole affair. His clean-shaven mug instantly informs us that he’s a bureaucrat; he’s unlikely to shoot anyone and therefore cannot be trusted. He has time in his schedule to push a razor along his jaw; this is clearly a man without an idealistic bone in his body. The same goes for his contemptible protégée played by Daniel Mays. Mays’ character, Nathan Bartnick, is even more of an untrustworthy bureaucrat because not only does he lack a beard, he also wears glasses. This marks him instantly as a spineless weasel and a career man. He doesn’t care about right and wrong; he only cares about targets and wearing the right shirt/tie combination. He will get his hands dirty and even assassinate people if it will advance his career, but he’s not very good at it because he doesn’t have a beard. He’s a climber. He sells out his colleagues at every opportunity just to get above them in the bureaucratic hierarchy. And he enjoys doing it. The man is so squeaky clean you know he’s dirty. Forget the beard, he barely even has sideburns. What a bastard.

There’s also a black policeman who tries to do the right thing but is too caught up in the red tape to really grow a decent beard. He lacks the courage of his convictions and ends up getting shot in the line of duty because his jaw just isn’t hairy enough for him to see the difference between honour and orders. He sides with the clean-shaven instead of the hairy ones and falls foul of his own misguided good intentions. It’s a shame because I imagine with just a little less chin-baldness he would have made a great cop…

The final character worth mentioning is Sternwood’s son, who, similarly to the black policeman, lacks the courage of his convictions. He also lacks a facial ornament. Coincidence? I think not. Ruan Sternwood’s lack of beardiness is symbolic of his inexperience. He has big plans to be an honourable criminal like his dad but without the appropriate amount of facial hair he can’t muster up the sheer single-mindedness to survive in the seedy underworld. Ruan’s missing beard tells us that he’s too trusting, too naïve and ultimately too green to run with the big (hairy) boys. He’s a spineless weasel because he doesn’t have the guts (or the beard) to do what’s necessary. When everything goes wrong, he tries to run rather than stand and face the overwhelming odds (and inevitable death) with grizzly determination. So he meets his end fairly early on. And his demise is made all the more tragic by the fact it could have been so easily avoided. If only he’d had the forethought to wait until after he’d gone through puberty to begin his criminal enterprise…

Enjoy Welcome to the Beard.

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