WAZ (aka WΔZ, aka w Delta z, aka The Killing Gene) (2007)

WAZ (aka WΔZ, aka w Delta z, aka The Killing Gene) first published by Film4

Summary: Tom Shankland’s feature debut is a bleak and bloody noir where New York’s darkest streets are trodden by a haunted detective and a tormented killer. 

Review: “There are shades of fuckin’ grey.” 

So declares grizzled detective Eddie Argo (Stellan Skarsgård) in WAZ, and he is right. For while it might be lazily dismissed as yet another piece of Se7en-style psycho noir, or as just more dilemma-based torture ‘porn’ à la Saw (whose title it knowingly inverts), in the end this moody feature debut from British director Tom Shankland stakes out several new shades of dark – and then uses them as the dramatic testing ground for a genre-busting love story, as well as for a Darwinist theory (concerning the non-existence of altruism) so horrific in its implications that it drove its real-life discoverer George R. Price to suicide when he was unable to disprove its truth.

When the corpses of a gangbanger and his pregnant girlfriend surface – he brutally mutilated, she electrocuted – few bat an eyelid. After all, on the mean streets of this neglected New York port borough (in fact shot in Belfast) it is strictly survival of the fittest, and the hardened local police regard the death of just another vicious dealer or ‘crack whore’ merely as cause to celebrate. Still, it remains a mystery why ‘WAZ’ was carved into the girl’s belly after her death – and when a second pair of bodies is found, one of them marked with the same cryptic letters, the hunt for a serial killer begins.

Assigned to the case with new partner Helen Westcott (Melissa George), Eddie begins to shake up the rival gangs, while also paying regular visits to his number one informant, young hoodlum Daniel Leone (Ashley Walters). Eddie is hardly a talker, but it is clear that he knows more than he is saying, and as Helen begins asking questions about a horrific past crime whose perpetrators evaded trial under suspicious circumstances, the identity of a murderer emerges who is every bit as tormented as the victims – leading Eddie to have his veneer of nihilistic cynicism put to the test as he faces some very painful home truths.

Shot almost entirely at night on handheld High Definition video by Morten Søborg (of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher trilogy), WAZ looks so dark, damp and gritty you will want to take a long shower the moment it is over – and its grim visual aesthetic is hardly lightened by themes of moral emptiness and scenes of increasingly graphic torture. Those who like their cinema bleak and uncompromising will be rewarded by Clive Bradley’s intelligent screenplay, and by yet another astonishingly weighty central performance from Skarsgård. 

From the instant we first see his silhouette sitting and smoking in a solitary parked car in the film’s opening scene, Skarsgård projects worldweariness, loneliness and abandonment with the most minimal of gestures. All the film’s painful conflicts can be traced on his haunted face long before any instrument of torture has appeared on screen, and his mere presence furnishes a gravitas that is unexpected in so arid a moral landscape, a quality that elevates WAZ above and beyond the confines of its genre. At the heart of all the film’s dismal despair, there is a love story – and as Eddie puts it in his own gruff, mumbling words, “You’ve got to bleed to keep that heart beating.” Yes, there will be blood – but only enough to ensure that these vampiric characters are returned to life.

Verdict: Out of the bloodiest horror, the darkest noir and the bleakest morality drama, Tom Shankland has crafted an unusual and highly affecting love story, with a central performance from Stellan Skarsgård to die for.

© Anton Bitel