Criminal Audition first look review Arrow FrightFest 2019

Criminal Audition tests the moral mettle of wannabe fake criminals confronted with the consequences of their choices

There is an overt incongruity between presentation and content in the credit sequence that opens Criminal Audition. Cut impressionistically, it shows Ryan (Luke Kaile) entering a building sealed off for demolition, and a seated line of people inside in chains and with sacks over their heads. The use of tinted freeze frames, and even the font used for the titles, evoke nothing less than a spaghetti western – and Al Anderson and Asa Bennett’s score will later prominently feature Morricone-esque whistling. Yet the setting is London, and the time, later revealed by the presence of VCRs and cassette players, is the Eighties or early Nineties. So Samuel Gridley’s feature debut, co-written with Kaile, is no conventional oater – but nonetheless this building will come to be the arena for a complicated and tense showdown, as different outlaw values engage in increasingly violent conflict.

“It’s rather fitting, this place – don’t you think?”, says Adeline (Angela Peters) to Ryan, in what is the first line of the film. She is referring to the disused theatre in which most of the narrative unravels – a place where Ryan, his boss William (Rich Keeble) and their laconic minder Moe (Scott Samain) conduct illicit auditions among the disenchanted and the desperate to take the rap for crimes committed by others, in exchange for a monetary reward. Ryan once went through this himself, receiving a prison  sentence for someone else’s act of murder – and now he uses his past experience to help facilitate the process. We are also aware, as we see him concealing a tape recorder under one of the theatre’s seats to make a secret recording of what goes on, that he has a hidden agenda.

He is not the only one. For as he and William interview the bound L (Rebecca Calienda), J (Blain Neale) and P (Ben Scheck) to test their suitability as convincing murderers, the client Miss M (Noeleen Comiskey) and her psychopathically genteel assistant Morris (Cameron Harris) arrive, and impose themselves aggressively on the audition process for Miss M’s replacement killer, the tensions – and body count – rapidly rise. Where William’s outfit is a bit on the amateurish side, the menacing Miss M and Morris are consummate professionals, and are quick to preside over a radical shift in the power dynamics. If their ruthlessness is not in question, what exactly they want is less clear, at least at first – and as the stakes on this stage keep getting raised, everybody, it seems, has their rôle to play in the unfolding psychodrama.

There is indeed something theatrical about Criminal Audition. It observes a strictly Aristotelian unity of time and place, confining its action almost entirely to one building over a single night – and like a small-scale community production, it privileges script and acting over excess spectacle or whizz-bang effects. This all works very much to the film’s credit – for here the writing is as tight as the location is claustrophobic, and all the performances are as nuanced as they are slippery. Ultimately this is an ensemble morality play, about actions and consequences taken in an apparent ethical vacuum where people are disconnected from their own choices. It is a story of past mistakes and present reckonings, where criminality is more than just an act, and where crime always pays back. It is also original in its ideas, assured in its execution(s), and an excellent screen test – though much more than that – for many promising careers.

Criminal Audition was seen and reviewed at Arrow Video FrightFest 2019.