There may be the potential you’ve seen an Irish criminal caper before, there have been enough of them to go around. How many can be proud of the quizzical charm their leading player can possess, effectively boosting a rather challenged palette of familiarity, however? Based on personal experience, not too many. That is what Olivia Cooke excelled in her latest, Pixie. Without too much exposition, she blasts onto the screen in the title role, a conflicted girl tangled in an almost unexplainable heist. It’s quite the hole director Barnaby Thompson pits his cast into, with a loose improvised feel behind it. It may waver off the deep end in spots, but the fun factor remains very firm in hand from beginning to end.
Pixie opens with the grandeur of a Leone-esque spaghetti western, in big words: “Once Upon a time in the West… of Ireland”. Talk about an irreverent spin on something so notable, where the pace moves from zero to 600 within fleeting moments. Minor thieves Colin (Rory Fleck Byrne) and Fergus (Fra Flee) have a huge score in their hands, a hefty drug bonanza protected by a group of dirty priests. Their leader, the mysterious Father McGrath (Alec Baldwin) is the worst out of them all, with a rather dark history, and a vendetta targeted at Fergus’s girlfriend, the titular Pixie and her family. The pair are looking for a better life in San Francisco, where Pixie strives to make a name for herself as a photographer. Instead, Colin shoots his deceptive partner before an incoming vehicle slams him to his death.
The driver happens to be a once-trusted ally of the two, Harland (Daryl McCormack), an amateur in the smuggling game, though desperate to prove himself to his close bestie Frank (Ben Hardy), who just so happens to be in love with the listless Pixie. She willingly inserts herself into the complex game of MDMA sale, with market share potentially as high as £4 million. Stakes couldn’t be higher, nor convoluted for these low-end players going for a big-time mess, and none of them escaping cleanly, once Pixie’s father, former IRA-era gangster Dermot (Colm Meaney) insists on taking action his own way, reviving a long-dormant skirmish between him and McGrath.
Thompson and his brother Preston (serving as co-writer) seem more than aware they’re not hell-bent on complete originality. However, it’s safe to say they’ve done their homework crafting another welcome entry to the subgenre they’re working in. Think a wildly hot chili mixing The Boondock Saints, Miller’s Crossing, and Lock Stock, to name only three where inspiration could be sourced. Whatever this film reminds the viewer of, there’s a certain expectation to be had. Paired with a slight suspension of disbelief. Call it a bloody chatterbox, in that the dialogue’s snappy, there’s rampant gunplay, and a slight hint of romantic entanglement that stays to just brief passages without it taking over the story.
Thompson assures the audience he carries a fair knack to let the characters express themselves to the fullest, and we see a strong cast capable of fulfilling that necessity. It’s made clear, quickly, Pixie’s family is broken, going back to her mother’s passing, and for whom she’s out for vengeance. Her brothers make unpleasant jokes to goad her on, fueling her frustration, candidness and infrequently manipulative nature. Miss Cooke, with well-practiced Dublin brogue, maintains the confident roll she has maintained since Ready Player One, elevated further in the potential Oscar contender Sound of Metal. Here, it is so uniquely different; she sees her best chance to slide into dark comedy, and doesn’t waste it. Her natural rhythm and nonconformist attitude toward the central conflict serve her so well, aiding her co-stars during a handful of sluggish scenes. In addition, her heartache keeps Thompson’s infused emotional clout on track.
This is quite crucial, as the Thompsons can’t seem to avoid veering off the road a little, while the merry band of scoundrels trot along. Amid a large supporting cast, Cooke may stand out with her carefree nature and sex appeal. However, too many actors could spoil the stew, and we fall victim to that on some brief occassions. When equally nefarious hitman Seamus (Ned Dennehy) enters in to reestablish some control and steal back the drug bags, his merits are not without some redundancy.
We see plenty of the main trio running rampant in an air of seduction. Thompson certainly gives increasing emphasis during the latter half on that deep-seeded spat between Dermot and McGrath. When Baldwin and Meaney receive the right project, their presence is a beautiful reward in itself. However, any manner of balance can’t be found in equal character spotlight; we needed more of the ex-gangster and the blood bound priest. And there could’ve been just an extra ounce of its dour Catholicism, without it being a clone of Cavalry. Eventually, the focus fixes back onto Pixie and her associates, certainly in over her head, but using all her tricks to coerce a pair of inept dupes to be more than just small-time petty criminals.
Aided by John de Borman’s (The Full Monty) expertly homegrown shot composition, both Thompsons ride their slightly unfulfilled, tidy, bleakly satisfying crime epic to a fair ending with a barrage of bullets and precise choreography exercises. Not quite the strongest of any in its subgenre, and not unlike anything we’ve probably seen prior. Still not without its chance to be lively, even sultry. What Pixie accomplishes outweighs what it couldn’t, whether it’s that certain lack of an original sense of storytelling, its lack of motivation for violent tendencies, or its under-establishment of an antagonistic hierarchy with too many baddies cast to make its point.
It’s certainly on Cooke’s shoulders to maintain whatever direction this under-the-radar quandary is headed towards. Against a tall card deck of scumbags in a landscape which Tarantino could easily nod in silent approval, she’d be the right person to take on the antihero part anytime.
Pixie is available via most digital retailers this weekend; rated R for violence, language, drug content and some sexual references; 93 minutes.