Opening with a coke-filled clandestine Internet hook-up in the woods, quickly followed up with a painful headbutt, Simon Pearce’s Shank successfully treads the line between sweet romance, gay soft-core porn, gang violence, and aimless exploitation. The combination of all of these elements is the only way the movie is unique; otherwise, it’s just a coming-out story where the lead character, Cal (played by Wayne Virgo), is a closeted British gang member with intimacy problems.
A dead ringer for a paler, teenage version of Martin Lawrence, Cal goes about his adult-free days smoking weed, jumping queers, and finding anonymous bareback partners who can videotape him servicing them. His fellow gang members obviously don’t have a clue about the last part (though there’s plenty of shirtless homoerotic bonding with Cal and his best friend). Otherwise, he’d be first in line for a beating.
First-time director Pearce owes a lot to Larry Clark’s Kids, as Shank is basically the same movie, but [well] shot on video, with a few more savage attacks and considerably less HIV. Cal’s boyfriend, Olivier, a French exchange student, looks like a skinnier Telly from Kids. (Well, if you mixed Telly with E.T.) Their love story is convincing only from Cal’s perspective. He’s needy, lonely, and scared. But Olivier has little to no reason to embrace this thug; especially since he was on the receiving end of one of the gang’s attacks (an interesting meet-cute though).
Since Cal is realistically stupid, as are most of the other characters, condemning his point-of-view isn’t easy. So we watch Shank from a distance, waiting for the eventual car wreck of gay bashing and emotional confusion to pile up. Pearce loses his way by the third act as the movie attempts to literally rub your nose in its grime and intensity. The film goes off into ridiculous melodrama-land, where there are apparently only seven people in the world. And they’ve either been beaten up by or had sex with Cal.
Obviously, these soap opera contrivances dissolve the interest that had been built up by Cal’s self-discovery and his romanticizing of his relationship with Olivier. But, while Shank is certainly a mess (it has nowhere near the insight into British gangs as Shane Meadows’ This is England), it isn’t boring. And Pearce should be congratulated for hiring actors who were not only effective, but handled the graphic sex scenes quite well.
The fact that his movie is all over the place is hardly an anomaly for a first film. And hopefully next time, much like Cal, instead of trying to cram everything in, he can just relax and enjoy himself.