Chris (Ian Virgo) has returned to his hometown in Wales after the demise of his business venture in Canada. Penniless and needing work, Chris ends up working at a quarry owned by Billy McCrae (David Hayman), a highly volatile, despotic figure whose grasp of the general area is much tighter than one might think. While working for Billy, Chris meets and becomes enamoured with his daughter Elen (Sianad Gregory), whose charismatic presence proves impossible to resist. Dragged into the world of the McCraes, Chris must balance his burgeoning romance with Elen with an increasingly delicate relationship with Billy that is always threatening to blow up in his face.
It’s a pretty classic noir set-up, and director Chris Crow attempts to build a sense of tension and intrigue around its characters as they face up against each other in a series of verbal battles that have the cadence of a thriller. All the intonations are there, but in reality it is difficult to get invested in the one-note people the film offers, whose concerns and relationships simply come across as too generic and unadventurous to break any new and interesting ground. Instead, the veneer of an effective thriller is easily knocked over, leaving a husk that is nothing more than a pale imitation of much better films.
That isn’t to say there is absolutely nothing about the experience that’s redeemable. David Hayman is effective as Billy, bringing a sinister, cold energy to a character around whom the central narrative pivots. Gregory is also good as Elen, even despite the fact that the central relationship with Chris hardly sets sparks flying. She deserves a film where she’s allowed to go beyond the archetypal corner she’s scripted into, but she does manage to eke out some drama from the dry script with a committed performance. Chris himself, as a central character, isn’t a memorable presence by any stretch of the imagination, and after a while it is very easy to wonder why these people spend time with each other at all since the chemistry is clearly lacking. As a result, the decisions made get progressively more inexplicable until incredulousness becomes downright disbelief.
The film does evoke its setting well, with the quarry itself forming one of the film’s most convincing backdrops, but ultimately that isn’t enough to prevent The Ballad of Billy McCrae from being an exercise in unearned clichés that doesn’t do enough to make its central characters believable, and as a result, never has enough of an impact to truly feel worthwhile. It would help if the whole thing didn’t feel so incidental, and it never shakes the feeling that it is merely a weak imitation of much better films, lots of which manage to offer that key sense of investment in a narrative before attempting to build on the intrigue. Sadly, it turns out The Ballad of Billy McCrae is one that’s been sung many times before, and much more convincingly at that.
The Ballad of Billy McCrae is in UK cinemas now