For the first film to ever be simultaneously screened in cinemas and streamed live on the internet, This Is Not A Love Song is a remarkably understated affair. Instead of a summer blockbuster romp about the trials and tribulations of superhero teams, or the latest hyped auteur’s epic such as The Irishman, it was a cold, digitally shot low-budget thriller studying two ne’er-do-well friends, as they hot-footed it across the Northern English countryside in a desperate attempt to evade a posse of sinister, angry locals. It was also an intelligent, superbly acted and highly emotive work, and certainly one of the most underrated films of the decade.
Heaton (Kenneth Glenaan) is a Scottish small-time criminal with a vague past in the military. As the film opens, we see him furtively scanning a car park in the early hours of the morning, before jimmying the door of a truck and inconspicuously driving away. Not an especially honest individual, for sure, but his vigilance and stoic demeanour indicate that he is at least a moderately smart one. He appears to be the kind of guy who prefers to keep to himself, and that you’d be best advised to let him do so.
Heaton is en route to pick up his best friend, a younger Ulsterman named Spike (Michael Colgan), who has just served several months in prison for intent-to-supply cannabis possession. Upon introduction to Spike, it is somewhat puzzling that he and Heaton have formed any kind of connection whatsoever, as, to put it as politely as possible, he is a fucking idiot. A vacuous, childish narcissist, Spike lacks a serious head for anything in life and responds to even the direst of situations with foolhardy humour or petulant sulking. He is churlish and defensive in response to Heaton’s paternalistic anger, chiding him for not coming to visit, even though Heaton has been busy trying to ensure that Spike has some kind of stability to come out to.
As they set off through deepest, darkest Yorkshire for a weekend of B&Bs, fast food, and planning their next move (and most definitely getting completely out of their nut), their stolen vehicle runs out of petrol, stranding them in Bumfuck, Nowheresville. Conveniently, there is a farm close by, and they elect to rummage around the supplies shed for fuel and anything else that takes their fancy, as you do. They are surprised by the enraged (and armed) landowner, who advises them to do their best impression of potted plants whilst he phones the police, if they don’t want a shotgun blast to the face. There is a sudden panic and a tragic accident occurs. With no means of transportation, barely any money, and a fresh crime to their name, Heaton and Spike run like hell through the Dales in an attempt to evade the police and find some measure of civilization.
The police have certainly been called, but our duo has an even bigger worry on their hands. Mr Bellamy (the one and only David Bradley) is an older farmer who commands a great deal of respect with the local community, and he has made up his mind that wilderness justice, and not due process, is the fate most deserved by the two fugitives. Assembling an army of fellow farmers and their associates, Bellamy arms them and sends them out on both foot and dirtbike to trawl the hills and forests for Spike and Heaton, ordering them to capture them and bring them to him so that he may mete out their punishments. Whilst Spike & Heaton can reasonably be summarized as a pair of dickheads who have (accidentally) done an appalling thing, Bellamy isn’t necessarily conveyed as a righteous presence. A stern and sinister man, he maintains a passive-aggressive silence with the local authorities, and whatever he has in store for the two is going to be downright disturbing, to say the least.
Aside from being beautifully shot, the rawness of nature captured in the way that only digital film can muster, it is also a moving and often funny examination of loyalty and friendship. Heaton clearly cares for Spike very deeply (it is subtly suggested but never substantiated that this might be a little bit more than platonic), and desperately attempts to reassure him that they will conquer their situation and return to normality before they know it. Despite his divvy juvenile behaviour, Spike also maintains a residual acknowledgement that he would be lost without Heaton, and looks up to him in an older brother fashion, knowing that his streetwise mentor, who exceeds him in general intelligence, street wisdom and practical thought, will always help him get out of a jam. Thought predominantly frustrated by him, Heaton does carry an almost envious admiration for Spike’s carefree playfulness, wryly grinning when he bestows him with the nickname Central (think about it), and never staying angry at him for long.
A strange and suspenseful work, it ranks as one of the more nuanced and intelligent backwoods thrillers, with the two central protagonists and their pursuers portrayed in a substantive manner where neither side is demonised nor made out to be overly sympathetic. With an orchestral variant of the titular track by Public Image, Ltd. serving as a recurrent theme throughout, it actually is something of a love song, one that shall be burned into your mind a long time after the credits begin to roll.