The Debt Collector

(Anthony Neilson, Scotland, 1999)


In its gritty, Scottish way, The Debt Collector revisits, and revises, the premise of an extravagant American thriller such as Cape Fear (1991).

In Scorsese’s film, a vicious rapist returns to haunt the lawyer who helped put him away. Here, an obsessed cop, Keltie (Ken Stott), stalks the ex-criminal, Dryden (Billy Connolly), who now lives among high society as an acclaimed artist.

Dryden is the poster boy of criminal reform – subject of a best-selling biography penned by his wife, Val (Francesca Annis), and a popular TV talk show guest. He is the living example that anyone – no matter how brutalised by their past and upbringing – can change their ways and climb the ladder of social respectability.

Keltie believes otherwise. Mired in his memories of Dryden’s former brutalities, he misses no opportunity to remind anyone – especially the increasingly troubled Val – of the criminal hidden within this modern-day folk hero.

The story builds psychological suspense in two, simultaneous directions: as we wonder whether Keltie is taking his campaign too far, we also dread the possibility that Dryden may indeed be about to explode in an animalistic fury.

Like the best of British television devoted to crime fiction, this film (written and directed by Anthony Neilson) spins a tight, coherent, thoughtful yarn. Moral questions – of guilt, forgiveness, reform and punishment – emerge skilfully from the parade of brutal, eye-for-an-eye actions and the ceaseless torrent of foul language.

In its early scenes, The Debt Collector seems about to ride an old dramatic warhorse – the ambiguous rivalry between criminal and law-enforcer, hate eventually giving way to a soulful, brotherly bond (as in Heat [1995] or Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid [1973]).

However, by triangulating the story between Dryden, Keltie and a young punk, Flipper (Iain Robertson), Neilson generates an often surprising, psychosexual intensity. The theme of envy is the key.

Flipper, in his crazed, hero worship, instantly detests anyone blessed by Dryden’s favour. Keltie, meanwhile, spins a fantasy for his dear old Mum, Lana (Annette Crosbie), which casts Val as his girlfriend. These criss-crossing envies build to disquieting outcomes.

Connolly is never quite convincing as a pet of high society – and he tends to act mainly with his eyebrows – but his powerful physical presence is eventually used to fine effect. Around him, Stott and Annis give marvellously nuanced performances. In its cinematic style, The Debt Collector never rises above the level of an efficient telemovie, but the carefully crafted interplay of its fated characters is gripping.

© Adrian Martin July 2000

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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