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About 30 minutes into County Lines, the debut feature from writer and director Henry Blake, there’s a key moment that decides a character’s trajectory. Our protagonist, a troubled teen named Tyler, is speaking to one of his more empathetic teachers. And just as he’s about to open up about his life, the fire alarm goes off, and the meeting comes to a premature halt.
What follows is a spiral that is equal parts compelling and disturbing. County Lines details how opportunistic drug dealers groom and recruit children, eventually using them as mules to transport product away from the big cities, to rural areas and small towns. Tyler is the prism through which we view this world, and County Lines shows just how easy it is for someone to become embroiled in it.
The film details how quickly someone can be swept away in this world – and how quickly it can change them and their relationships. It’s a testament to the performance of Conrad Khan, making his big screen debut as Tyler, that this transformation is given such sense of unflinching, chilling reality.
While Khan’s central performance is a standout, all of the actors give excellent showings. Ashley Madekwe, as Tyler’s mother Toni, goes through an equally powerful transformation. Rather than going from innocence to cold hostility like Tyler, she encapsulates the corrosive power of her son’s criminal life – becoming more tired and desperate as the film goes on. Their mother-son relationship is the film’s heartbeat.
Recent estimates show that up to 10,000 children are being exploited or forced to work in drugs gangs across the United Kingdom. But watching this film, what emerges is the sheer indifference of the criminal enterprise to its charges – these children are merely cogs in a remorseless, churning machine – a means to an end.
This indifference is perfectly manifested by Simon, the dealer that enlists Tyler. Played by up-and-coming actor Harris Dickinson, Simon is a good looking, charismatic guy that allures Tyler, a boy that’s desperate for leadership in his life. With his flash car, he initially dazzles Tyler, treating him to new runners, and a nice restaurant meal. Dickinson’s performance perfectly balances this magnetism, but couples it with an avaricious, unblinking intensity that embodies the exploitation at work.
The film itself is naturalistic in approach, but its cinematography lends it a distinctly cinematic feel. The bleakness of the plot is accentuated by the film’s locations – destitute seaside villages, dark suburban pathways, arcing anonymous railway stations. And yet the film is so beautifully shot, that these places have a kind of strange beauty.
The film skillfully employs a series of static shots throughout frame Tyler’s home and school life. The imagery is almost photographic in nature, giving the locations a lived-in realism that further lends to the film’s humanising power. Similarly, the performances are captured in a straight on fashion – allowing the gifted actors to let their faces tell the story. Both of these techniques – capturing both setting and performance with such a clear-eyed, sharp focus – enhance an already effective story. And the film’s portrayal of criminality – namely the violence – is presented in a straightforward, unfussy manner, making it all the more harrowing and unsettling.
County Lines is a restrained, elegantly told story – anchored by an empathetic and resonant lead performance. The film hones in on the core of criminality – exploitation, indifference, brutality, and perfectly details the corrosive power of such a life. Its themes are distinctly uncinematic, but it’s told with a visual flair that is lends its stark subject matter with a raw emotional power. It’s a cautionary tale, beautifully told.