Viking Night: Get Carter
By Bruce Hall
January 21, 2015
Sideburns. Earth tones. Bell bottoms. Homemade dirty movies. It’s the 1970s - brought to you by Michael Caine. And he should know - at one time he was the same kind of hard-living, slick trickster he played on screen. So, it wasn’t hard for him to slip into the role of Jack Carter, a small time London gangster who seems to think he’s just a little bit better than everyone else. At the beginning of the film, he’s sulking disdainfully on a couch, nursing a scotch while his gangster friends smoke cheap cigars and snicker at low budget porn. Jack’s brother frank has died under mysterious circumstances - as gangsters tend to do - and the gang is trying to talk him out of investigating.
I’d like to think that if I had a death in the family, my friends would be a little more sympathetic, and not respond with statements that sound like part insensitive joke, part ominous warning. Jack isn’t so lucky, so before there’s time to say “I wonder why everyone wants me to just accept my brother’s death and walk away without asking any questions?” he’s on a train to Newcastle. He uses the time to snort drugs, catch up on his reading and glumly thumb through a litany of suspicions.
Speaking of suspicions, it’s hard to believe there was no Twitter in 1971 because the moment Jack steps off the train, everyone in town seems to know who he is and why he’s there. Newcastle (at least in the film) is a cesspool of industrial blight, and Jack, despite having been away for many years, is as tainted as its inhabitants. Most everyone is of working-class stock, and those who drop by Frank’s funeral to pay their respects share with the Carter boys a fraternal bond of blue collar hardship, undiminished by years and distance. But Jack isn’t here to reminisce, he’s here to find the person who killed his brother and then murder the hell out of them.
But the funny thing is, everyone he questions seems to know something he doesn’t, but nobody wants to say anything. The cause of death was drunk driving, and Frank was pulled from the car stinking of whiskey - a drink he never enjoyed. His daughter Doreen (Petra Markham) seems haunted by something she either can’t, or won’t share. His skeevy on and off girlfriend Margaret (Dorothy White) can barely be bothered to mourn, but is obviously holding something back. And as Jack makes the rounds of his old acquaintances, he is re-introduced to the high profile side of the Newcastle underground. It doesn’t take long to confirm what he already suspects - gangsters die all the time, but it’s almost never an accident.
Get Carter may sound like a Guy Ritchie revenge fantasy before there were Guy Ritchie revenge fantasies, but you’d be mistaken. There is no tongue in cheek here, and there are no snarky, comically self-aware street hucksters around to narrate. This is neo-noir from across the Pond, set in a city full of vipers and with every character steeped in the poison. Carter himself doesn’t seem to care what he destroys or who he hurts in pursuit of the truth, and at first you want to chalk it up to love for his brother. But as the film goes on, we question how well he even knew Frank, and his rampage begins to look less like justice and more like an obligatory exercise in rage fulfillment.