The Tarantino-Wes Anderson-Coen Brothers Mashup You Need to Check Out

"Boat Story" premieres on Amazon Freevee this week

March 12, 2024 6:21 am
Daisy Haggard and Paterson Joseph in "Boat Story"
Daisy Haggard and Paterson Joseph in "Boat Story"

Borrowing heavily from the stylized whimsy of Wes Anderson, wry neo-noir of the Coen Brothers and pulpy ultra-violence of Quentin Tarantino, Amazon Freevee’s new import Boat Story (which premieres here in the States on March 12) initially sounds like it’s been plucked from the bottom shelf of a late ‘90s Blockbuster rather than the 2023 schedules of the BBC. Remember 8 Heads in a Duffle Bag? Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane? Or any other darkly comic thriller in which a first-time director desperately tried to craft their own answer to “Royale with cheese”?

Yet while the six-part crime caper undoubtedly wears its influences on its sleeve, creators Harry and Jack Williams bring something distinctly British to the post-modern table. Indeed, best-known for their chilling dramas centered on child abduction (The Missing), rape (Liar) and domestic abuse (Angela Black), the siblings appear to be letting their hair down of late: they’re also behind The Tourist, a similarly twist-filled caper which leaves you laughing out loud one minute and your jaw on the floor the next.  

Boat Story is arguably even wilder in its tone swings than the adventures of Jamie Dornan’s on-the-run amnesiac. It’s certainly more brutal. In the first 15 minutes alone, we see a bunch of kids discovering a severed head, a horrific industrial accident which robs the leading lady of multiple fingers and a seabound drug bust which results in the gory deaths of both the skipper smuggling a multi-million-pound stash of cocaine and the corrupt cop determined to muscle in on the supply chain. 

These three gruesome events all become interlinked when the small boat carrying said drugs and said dead bodies washes up on the shore of the fictional Applebury, a rather grim coastal area in Northern England populated by oddballs. “Not the kind of place people die to go to, more the kind where people go to die,” remarks the show’s sardonic narrator (Icelandic Ólafur Darri Ólafsson channeling all-American Sam Elliott in The Big Lebowski). 

The lucrative cargo is first discovered by two strangers taking an early morning beachside stroll. Up first is Samuel (Paterson Joseph), a struck-off criminal solicitor secretly up to his eyeballs in gambling debts. “So I don’t have a 24-hour casino in my pocket,” he explains about his mobile phone resembling a relic from the ‘00s. And then there’s Janet (Daisy Haggard), a down-on-her-luck divorcee (“My life is one big Groundhog Day of waking up under a fucking lawnmower and being torn to shit”) who’s just been cheated out of her rightful workplace compensation.  

While the more sensible of the pair immediately wants to call the police, the more reckless half sees the bags of white stuff as the answer to all their financial woes (“This is the world throwing us a bone”). And before you can say No Country for Old Men, a new odd couple is born. Of course, as they soon find out to their cost, crime, even of the inadvertent kind, rarely pays. 

Haggard, who often stole the show in Tinseltown satire Episodes simply by scrunching up her face, is typically magnetic as a woman pushed to the extremes by the cruel blows life has dealt her: Janet must also contend with the weaselly born-again ex-husband (Craig Kelly) more interested in smugly spreading the gospel than caring for the stepson she dotes upon. “We’re not Thelma and Louise, you daft bastard,” comes the no-nonsense response as her new partner-in-crime suggests fleeing a potential stop and search just moments after picking up their illicit haul. The fact that they’re only pulled over for a minor traffic offense indicates they might not have the ideal temperament for large scale drug dealers.  

Still, while both parties are clearly out of their depths from the get-go, it’s refreshing to see the female half calling most of the shots, and, as in a memorable scene in which she poses as a tattooed Balkan drug baron, saving the day, too. Having previously worked with Haggard on Back to Life, the highly underrated self-penned tragicomedy where she starred as a convicted murderer reintegrating into her hometown, the Williams brothers already knew the complexities she was capable of. And the layered performance she gives here, in a role specially written for her, is the kind Coen Brothers regular Frances McDormand would be proud to call her own.  

Joseph isn’t given as much to get his teeth into, with Samuel’s family troubles failing to pack the same emotional punch as Janet’s. Still, he nails the nerviness of a man equally concerned about his wife and daughter discovering the vengeful overlord on his tail as the true catalyst for their move from London. Of course, as shown in the opening episode’s brutal police station shootout — a Tarantino-like scene which caused something of a minor media furor when it was first screened in the UK back in November — it’s the vengeful overlord who should be most feared.  

Unsurprisingly, The Tailor — in the type of moonlighting that only happens in the movies, Samuel and Janet’s new nemesis also works as a Parisian outfitter — isn’t particularly happy his drug trafficking empire has been so rudely gate-crashed. Played with an ice-cold menace by another Williams regular Tchéky Karyo (Baptiste), the big boss offs his enemies with a ruthless efficiency that would impress Vincent Vega, whether he’s pulling the trigger himself or outsourcing to man mountain sidekick Guy (Craig Fairbrass).    

But in another sign of how Boat Story regularly subverts expectations, The Tailor is far from a one-dimensional villain. A romance with baker Pat (Joanna Scanlan), who — as shown in several monochromatic flashbacks, appears to remind him of a matronly figure from the past — begins to soften his edges considerably. “I have never been so vulnerable,” he acknowledges while uncharacteristically offering a 24-hour literal stay of execution. Later on, the head honcho becomes so lovestruck he’s expressing glee at the idiosyncrasies of the English language. “Let’s give it a whirl, ha,” he repeats having initially mistaken Pat’s relationship plans for a request to spin around.   

It’s a similar story with Guy who, when not killing defenseless cops in the manner of a video game shoot-em-up, is a mild-mannered family man who dreams of a career in pottery. It’s a side he only reveals to another Coens-esque character, Pat’s son Ben (Ethan Lawrence), a bumbling young cop who, thanks to nothing more than a Chinese restaurant coupon and unshakable belief in his own abilities, gets the closest to cracking the case.  

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At the other end of the spectrum, there’s Vinnie (Adam Gillen), the crazed gang leader who gets high on his own supply, has a penchant for beating victims while they’re hung up like human piñatas and puts the fate of his rural drug cartel in the hands of a tarot card reader. Boat Story can occasionally stray into the land of the cartoonish and, indeed, the incredulous: much of Samuel’s escape plan relies on the convenient fact that for his 50th birthday, he received a remarkably lifelike model of his head. However, following all their earlier hard-hitting work, it’s hard to begrudge the Williams a few flights of fancy.  

It isn’t as easy, however, to forgive the overload of narrative devices which present the Williams as rookies fresh out of film school rather than the experienced names behind several award-winning miniseries. Alongside the booming narration and numerous trips down memory lane, scenes are divided by the kind of silent movie-style title cards even Wes Anderson might dismiss as a little too twee. (The first episode is bookended by the phrases “Some prologues are epilogues” and “some epilogues are prologues,” for example.) 

Then there’s the play-within-a-play (or musical-within-a-play to be more specific) in which Phil Daniels’ Craig, an ex-con who used his contacts to help shift all the gear, applies some artistic license to retell Samuel and Janet’s story for a regional theater audience. Sure, there’s some fun to be had watching the outlandish tale set to some enjoyably ridiculous showtunes (see “insomnia, where are ya, I found ya, insomnia, like an orphan in Bosnia”). But when Samuel himself sits in on a performance to pass judgment, there’s a sense the show is being a little too clever for its own good.  

Still, at a time when British drama is looking toward anger-inducing real-life scandals for inspiration — see everything from the government response to the COVID crisis (Breathtaking) and the wrongful convictions of hundreds of sub-postmasters (Mr Bates vs. The Post Office) to the Welsh steelworks strikes of the 1980s (The Way) — it’s refreshing to watch something confidently grounded so far outside of everyday reality.  

With the Coen Brothers now working separately for the time being, Tarantino’s 10th and reportedly final film still in development and the shooting of Anderson’s The Phoenician Scheme only beginning next month, Boat Story also neatly fills a gap until the holy trinity of Gen X auteurs make their return.  

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