The British heist thriller Wasteland plays an elaborate shell game with the audience, using hidden motives, a deceptive narrator, and many twists and turns along the way. But the biggest bait-and-switch of all may be the title, referring to the depressing industrial bog—unnamed, though the film was shot in Leeds—where four young men plot an elaborate caper. While thwacking golf balls around an unpaved lot or stretching out around a concrete embankment, the friends occasionally drift from their scheming to talk about gripes more common to working-class kids trying to make their way in the world. One of them talks of a future as a welder, and another is five long years away from being a solicitor, but those dreams are banal, elusive, and unlikely to deliver anyone from urban decay. For the friends—and surely others like them—a quick score is the ticket.
All of that is basically bullshit. Writer-director Rowan Athale teases out a film about a generation adrift, but Wasteland junks that theme with a quickness once it’s time to put words into action. Those amateur welding skills do come in handy, but there’s otherwise no follow-through on the down-to-earth character work Athale does in the film’s first half. He’s ultimately more interested in feeding the insatiable market for stylish British crime movies of the Trainspotting/Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels variety, and to that modest end, he’s done slightly better than most. Wasteland reveals itself as little more than a bloodless plot engine, but it purrs and hums under the ultra-slick chassis.
With a tip of the hat to The Usual Suspects, Wasteland frames its story as a suspect’s long testimony during an interrogation session. Turning up beaten and disheveled, face speckled with dried blood, Harvey (Luke Treadaway) tells his tall tale to a skeptical investigator, played by Timothy Spall. Cut to six weeks earlier, as Harvey is released from prison after serving a year on the trumped-up charge of possession with intent. Harvey blames his lock-up on Steven Roper (Neil Maskell), a powerful local businessman and drug kingpin who occasionally mollifies the authorities by sacrificing a pawn in his operation. Still burned about being set up, Harvey and his three buddies (Iwan Rheon, Gerard Kearns, Matthew Lewis) come up with a plan to take revenge on Roper by robbing him of £50,000 in cash. But even professional hoodlums would have trouble threading a needle this thin: The quartet needs to break into a men’s club secured like a fortress, crack a heavy safe, and peel out of town before Roper and his henchman catch wind of it. And based on Harvey’s face in the frame story, the plan doesn’t go off without a hitch.
Following a lot of careful build-up, Athale springs some surprises during the heist itself, which follows the “best laid plans” line, but not in a way viewers might anticipate. It’s clever, in other words—though to paraphrase Tyler Durden in Fight Club, “How’s that working out for you?” Harvey’s initial exchanges with his ex-girlfriend (Vanessa Kirby) have a warmed-over Double Indemnity snap, but that relationship gets folded into the scheme along with most everything else. And whatever doesn’t fit into the scheme—like the “wasteland” part of Wasteland—gets kicked to the curb. Athale hustles through the genre paces skillfully, but in the end, they’re just paces.