Broken hopes in suburbia
There is no escape from teenage terror for three families in a London neighborhood
Posted: October 16, 2013
Nothing to hold your nose at. Emotional brutality often leads to physical violence in Broken, a gripping UK film with Cillian Murphy and Tim Roth.
At the end of a cul-de-sac in a London suburb, there are three homes, all of them broken. Teenagers live in all of them, and although nobody really talks to each other, the actions of the one always affect the inhabitants of the next. People get away with murder - or at least very severe violence - because of fear and a measure of empathy with others' dire circumstances, but all of this leads to some horrifying scenes.
Broken was awarded the Grand Prix earlier this year at Prague's major film festival, Febiofest, and is not at all dissimilar to the festival's 2012 winner, the thoroughly depressing The Good Son (Hyvä poika) from Finnish director Zaida Bergroth. We feel the desperation of good people who are victims of heartless individuals who, for whatever reason, are delighting in the misfortune they are causing others. And yet, because it is a film, we cannot do anything about their suffering except close our eyes, shift uncomfortably in our seats, or scream at the screen.
The film, however, is not heartless, and often shows us the terrible consequences of violence first, before flashing back to the incident, thereby gently preparing us for what is to come. Such scenes are still tough to watch sometimes, but director Rufus Norris does not want to drown us in despair: On the contrary, these scenes are often quite different from one another, and the characters do undergo minor changes.
The three families are: the 20-something Rick Buckley, a shy but friendly man who lives with his parents and is mentally challenged because he nearly drowned as a boy; three teenage girls and their father, Bob Oswald; and the film's main character, a 13-year-old girl named Skunk, who lives with her teenage brother, her father and their Polish nanny.
Directed by Rufus Norris
With Eloise Laurence, Tim Roth, Cillian Murphy, Robert Emms
Most scenes of violence are connected to the Oswalds, as the girls' father lashes out at anyone who seems to question his parenting skills after the death of his wife, and his daughters always blame their misdeeds on others who are not strong enough to protect themselves.
The lies the Oswald girls tell have far-reaching repercussions, but in the opening scene we already get a very ominous sense that things will only get worse. Rick is washing the car outside his parents' house, when Skunk comes up to him and they engage in banter that goes nowhere but shows they want to speak to each other, no matter how silly the subject. Suddenly, Bob Oswald appears and starts knocking Rick around until he has to be taken to the hospital.
The reason for this outburst, we subsequently learn, is that Oswald's daughter had a condom in her bedroom and when her father confronted her about it, she suggested it was Rick who had taken advantage of her. No matter this story makes absolutely no sense, the father wants to show he will protect his daughter and violently assaults the young man. Rick never recovers from this incident.
The girls' reckless behavior eventually affects Skunk, whose interest in Rick probably goes beyond mere friendship, as they terrorize her at school for no particular reason except to give them a sense of control in a life where their father rarely questions them and the death of their mother has left a very visible scar. They are white-trash bullies, taking advantage of the good will of everyone around them, including teachers and other adults, to get what they want and wreak havoc wherever they go.
This ensemble film intertwines the stories of its three families very skillfully, and in the middle of all of this chaos, Tim Roth, as Skunk's father, whose wife is no longer a part of the family either, is calm and collected and provides a wonderful feeling of stability amid a sea of troubles.
Broken is certainly not an easy film to watch, but it has some powerful scenes, and it is satisfying to see Skunk sometimes standing up for herself but still having enormous fear in certain situations.
"Why do bad things happen?" she asks her father in the middle of the film. She is possibly referring to her mother, who ran away with another man, but she may also be referring to the teenage evils she is confronting at school. Her father is philosophical in his answer, but because we know more about her life than he does, we fear he won't be able to help her find the light again. We're right, but it is a testament to Roth's credibility that we don't write him off. He exudes a serenity that we can hold onto even when everything else seems to be falling apart, and that offers us at least one buoy in this whirlpool of physical and emotional warfare.
André Crous can be reached at