- - Thursday, August 25, 2011

What does it take to commit murder?

In “Brighton Rock,” not much.

Rowan Joffe’s stylish gangster noir offers a pair of final deeds in its opening few minutes, the cruel consequences of which stop two lives — and forever change two more.

Mr. Joffe’s adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1938 novel is likely too obscure to change many viewers’ lives. But it’s moody, mysterious and marvelously menacing, despite somewhat muddled storytelling.

Like a fair bit that takes place in the film, the reasons behind the tandem killings that introduce the movie aren’t immediately obvious, and much of the first half of the film is devoted to sorting out why it all went down and what it might mean.

Yet the movie’s sumptuously shot gangland mayhem also serves as cover for a subtler question — not what it takes to kill, but why a driven, conscienceless killer might go out of his way to avoid taking a life that would be easy and convenient to simply snuff out.

That killer is Pinkie (Sam Riley), a sour young sociopath with an outsized craving for power and status in the realm of local criminal enterprise. Pinkie starts by taking charge of his local protection gang and quickly works his way up the ladder to Colleoni (Andy Serkis, once again displaying a delicate physicality), a suave local kingpin.

Greene’s novel gave Pinkie’s bloody ambition a coming-of-age jolt — he was just 17. At 30, Mr. Riley, in hair-slick DiCaprio mode, doesn’t quite pass for a kid. But he maintains a boyish edge charged by the sullen aimlessness of youth — here amplified by a decision to update the book’s setting to 1964, amid rioting between gangs of scooter-riding mods and leather-clad rockers. Pinkie’s unsure of his limits and himself, but greedy enough that he becomes frighteningly willing to test what those limits, if any, might be.

For the most part, Pinkie has no compunctions about violence, physical or psychological. But Rose (Andrea Riseborough) is another story. At first he seduces her to gain access to photographic evidence that could lead investigators to pin a murder on his gang. But even after acquiring the photo, he stays with her — and she with him.

That’s part of the mystery. He’s attractive, yes, and moneyed enough and well-dressed. But he doesn’t exactly treat her like a queen — quite the opposite. So why does she stay? Even Pinkie begins to wonder. “What do you get out of this?” he asks. Rose’s response? “A life.” But Mr. Joffe suggests that Pinkie’s decision to give Rose a life — in more ways than she ever expects — may ultimately amount to little more than taking it.

Writer-director Joffe is more successful at establishing a tone than guiding viewers through a narrative. His sense of mod-era menace is exquisite. But with too many characters to keep track of — Helen Mirren turns up as a cafe owner determined to out Pinkie’s homicidal ways, and John Hurt appears as another part of the local criminal firmament — Mr. Joffe’s narrative is muddled.

“Brighton Rock” may not explain all that is behind its murder and mayhem, but it makes sure it always looks good.

★★★

TITLE: “Brighton Rock”

CREDITS: Written and directed by Rowan Joffe

RATING: Not rated, but would merit an R for murder, sexual situations

RUNNING TIME: 111 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS