As interesting as he inevitably is, there’s something forlorn about British character actor Toby Jones, a sense that he’s carrying on through the hopelessness of whatever dead-end life he’s portraying this time.
Short, balding, Jones gives every role the weight of the world, the sense that he’s doing his best to beat back the bitterness.
He works a lot — sci-fi and drama, British TV — and plays a lot of scientists, officious officials (“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy”), assistants, gossips (Truman Capote in “Infamous”) and downtrodden fixers. Sometimes, they aren’t quite so downcast (Hollywood agent Swifty Lazar in “Frost/Nixon.”).
At least when he’s a villain, or a villain’s henchman (“Captain America: The Winter Soldier”), he gets to break out a demonic smile.
The rare occasion when he becomes a leading man puts his disappointment or efforts to avoid it front and center. Check out the melancholy myopia of the ever-so-twee TV series “detectorists,” for instance.
In “Kaleidoscope” he’s Carl, a little man in a little flat in a huge, impersonal complex living a lonely life, with only his mother’s guilt-loaded answering machine message for company. He faces that blinking “You’ve got messages” light with utter dread.
When he finally gets a woman (Sinead Matthews) up to his place for Sea Breezes (vodka, cranberry juice, grapefruit juice), he’s on his heels from the start.
“Where’s all your stuff?”
He doesn’t have much.
“Let’s look at your profile. Where’s your computer?”
“I use one at the library.”
And when the aggressively fun-seeking Abby asks if “I’m your sort,” because men tend to date their mothers (her theory), it’s nosebleed time. His.
He dashes to the bathroom, she rummages through his place. Not to rob him, but to figure him out — a prison library book here, an old-fashioned kaleidoscope there.
“You don’t drink. You don’t smoke. You don’t dance. Maybe you’d rather read a book.”
What’s her angle? Maybe she’s just drunk. His? He’s got secrets, layers of secrets.
Carl’s mood turns on a ten pence piece.
“Why are you here?”
“You look like a pushover.”
When he wakes up after blacking out, Abby is dead. What’s he done?
That sets off the ex-con’s frantic effort to clean up after the crime, curling up in a ball to see if the luggage he has on hand will hold a short woman’s body. Bits and pieces of the night, his psychological past, and that damned answering machine message interrupt the sound of…sawing.
Jones’s brother Rupert wrote and directed “Kaleidoscope,” a psychological thriller with touches of the Edgar Allen Poe story “The Cask of Amontillado” that Toby Jones filmed years ago. And maybe a hint of “Psycho.”
Because when Mummy (Anne Reid) shows up, she has an awful lot of access to his life and information about what might have just happened. He wants nothing to do with her, and her every word and action seems to implicate him and complicate the crime he apparently has committed.
She cooks, “It’s liver, your favorite,” and he’s not having it.
“You have no idea what I like.”
Mumsy, from the Isle of Wight, is all “bygones,” and unflappable in the face of Carl’s naked hatred.
“Is there no way to start again, after all this time?”
“But I haven’t had any time. All my time’s been taken away.”
Interrogations, phony alibis, a brute of a husband, an overly curious police dog — and afterwards, the third degree in velvet gloves from the hated on woman on the sofa.
There’s a built-in inevitability about “Kaleidoscope” that puts the burden on performances for this to come off, and they almost salvage a generally bland, mostly unsurprising thriller.
Reid’s toxic smile and Matthews’ working class wantonness work. But in a role no-doubt written for him, Jones downloads his entire arsenal — hurt, shyness, pain, guilt and rage — onto the screen. This is a performance that smacks of desperation and denial, a paranoid loner making it up as he goes along.
He’s better than the film, more interesting as a character than as a character watching justice close in on him.
MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, disturbing themes
Cast: Toby Jones, Anne Reid, Sinead Matthews, Deborah Findlay
Credits: Written and directed by Rupert Jones. An IFC release.
Running time: 1:39