The World We Knew (2020)

In the opening scene of WW Jones and Luke Skinner’s The World We Knew, Smith (Mat Harvey), young Eddie (Alexander Wells) and Stoker (played by Jones’ co-writer Kirk Lake) are waiting in the back of a van. The door opens, a male voice says, “It’s time,” and we see the gun in Eddie’s hand as the three head out. Next the film’s title appears on the screen in flickering bold white capitals on black, as we hear gunfire, car engines and police sirens without ever actually seeing the shootout. Shortly afterwards, at an isolated house in the countryside being used as a hideout, a radio news report will reveal that there was a running gun battle in Central London, leaving one policeman dead. Eddie is now digging a grave for Smith, while another gang member, HP (Simon Rhodes), is slowly bleeding to death upstairs. The remaining gang members – leader Carpenter (Finbar Lynch), old school Barker (Struan Rodger), ex-boxer Gordon (Johann Myers), as well as Eddie and Stoker – are lying low with the loot for the night while they try to work out which of them tipped off the constabulary about the armed robbery.

The sheer economy of this opening, with its central event graphically conjured and sketched – without being shown on screen – through prelude, sound effects and aftermath, immediately evokes another low-budget feature debut, Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992), with its similar focus on honour (and its opposite) among thieves in the wake of a heist gone wrong. Drinking, smoking and snorting together, these hard men hang out, play games and exchange stories, including the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice (an underworld myth for underworld men). Here it seems clear that we are in the same sort of existential territory explored by Jean-Pierre Melville’s policiers or Takeshi Kitano’s Sonatine (1993) – gangster films fuelled by doom-laden fatalism. HP knows that he is on his way out, but one or more of his fellow crewmen may also be dead men walking, as they all sit tight in their limbo, waiting for word from their absent kingpin, waiting for a division of the booty, waiting for judgement and reckoning, waiting for whatever it is coming to/for them, now or in the end. 

Yet there is something else going on here, initially haunting the film’s periphery before gradually taking centre stage. When Eddie walks to the pond outside to clean the blood from his hands (both metaphorically and literally), he – and we with him – get a first glimpse of this new element, reflected in the water: a figure standing on the opposite shore who, an instant later, is not there. This apparition at a lakeside location immediately recalls the similar figure from Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961) – and that film’s carefully constructed ambiguity, shifting between psychological and supernatural frames for its strange events, is certainly carried over to The World We Knew, as these criminals are dogged by their guilt about the past as much as by spectres. When Eddie shows Barker the tattoo on his breast bearing his young son’s name ‘Sonny’, Barker correctly replies, “Looks like it says ‘sorry’.” Indeed, Eddie, who never wanted to follow in his own father’s criminal footsteps but who has now killed a cop, has regret inscribed on his very person. The others are plagued by similar compunctions which, in this atmospheric country pad (where the lights constantly flicker and fail), over this long dark night of the soul, manifest themselves in the shadows. 

“You’re empty,” Carpenter tells one of the men towards the end of the film. He is referring specifically to the chambers of his addressee’s gun, but these words resonate more broadly in a film where men – and everyone here is male – have become hollowed husks of remorse and bad conscience. For like Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (2011) and Sean Hogan’s The Devil’s Business (2011), The World We Knew is a gangland ghost story depicting masculinity in crisis. It is also a very impressive first feature, scripted with nuance, mounted with confidence and performed with tragic humanity. The Limiñanas’ psychedelic rock score is the sweet sweet icing on this lugubriously layered cake. 

strap: In WW Jones and Luke Skinner’s The World We Knew, criminal and infernal underworlds hide out together in the shadows.

© Anton Bitel