Imagine Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” staged and cast by gangster-obsessed Martin McDonagh and set to the music of Morrisey, imitating the work of Jonathan Larson.
That’s my best shot at describing “The Score,” Malachi Smyth’s debut feature about two mobsters waiting for a “meet,” with one of them falling in love and singing duets with the waitress at the remote cafe where things are about to, as they say, “go down.”
The structure has a tried and true sturdiness to it — tensions rising and tempers flaring as an annoying, impulsive tough guy and his meaner partner get on each other’s nerves about the dangers to come. The execution is novel, fascinating and just musically/romantically entertaining enough to not totally muck up the suspense that’s built in.
Will Poulter (“The Revenant”) and Johnny Flynn (“The Outfit,” “emma.”) play the criminal minds waiting for some sort of cash split. Troy (Poulter) is a brute who fancies himself a an English wit. He prattles on about words with multiple meanings — “sacked” and the like.
This “score” they’re about to make might involve “settling old scores.” And as the opening split-screen sets up their meeting and their goals makes clear, this “score” will be musical, as every now and then characters break into song — sometimes solo, sometimes in duets, occasionally acapella, often accompanied by offscreen musicians.
Troy’s brother is in prison. He kept all the money he and Mike (Flynn, who also composed the music) had from their “jobs.” Now, there’s some sort of split involving third parties whom Troy has never met.
The younger Troy has problems following the most basic instructions — “Stay here,” Keep quiet,” “Keep a low profile.” Guys like him always have to remind others “I’m not stupid.” He starts a brutal brawl waiting at the pumps at a rural gas station while hotheaded Mike “Mikey” is bullying the clerk inside into undercharging for this, making an exception to the “restroom isn’t for customers,” etc.
Troy further drifts off script when they arrive at the secluded diner where their “handoff” is slated to happen. The sassy, sexy clerk, cook and waitress (Naomi Ackie of “Small Axe” and “The Corrupted”) smarts off about him being “a poet” thanks to his word play. What’s your name? Troy?
“It’s classic,” he says.
“You mean classical,” she says, correcting him for the second or third time in their first conversation.
“You like telling people what they mean, don’t you?”
As Mike insults and glares at “Gloria,” bullying her into changing the diner’s rules just for him, Troy is falling into her smile and sense of style.
Every musical has its “check in” or “check out” point for viewers who are indifferent to the art form. When Troy and Gloria exchange lyrics in their first flirtation/courtship duet, the viewer faces that moment of truth. I went with it.
“I’m burning for thee,” he sings. “Run run run through me,” she replies. “Have a care to fill this vessel of your heart.”
He is smitten. She is smitten. She is wary of this embittered, testy tough guy Troy is paired up with — “He has the air of a wife-beater.” But as they sing in a beached rowboat out back, we get a sense Troy just might change his plans and his destiny for Gloria.
Everybody does his or her own singing, with Ackie and Flynn having the most interesting, soulful voices and Poulter holding his own.
The tunes are pleasant enough, depending on your taste, and no more memorable than most of the melodies Glen Hansard wrote for “Once,” or the vast majority of the work of “Rent’s” Larson or Lin-Manuel you-know-who.
They complement the story and heighten the emotions or the drama, which is all the songs need to do here.
Such “meets” to settle a “score” have a limited number of ways they can come out, but Smyth manages a few surprises in between the tried and true tropes. No, he’s no Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) or John Michael McDonagh (“The Guard,” “Calvary”), or even a Guy Ritchie.
But then, none of those tough guy filmmakers has had the nerve to set one of their mob-influenced morality plays to music, have they?
Rating: unrated, violence, profanity
Cast: Will Poulter, Naomi Ackie, Johnny Flynn, Lydia Wilson and Lucian Msamati
Credits: Scripted and directed by Malachi Smyth. A Gravitas Ventures release.
Running time: 1:40