In 2006, Irish filmmaker Leo Regan released Scars, a one-off 47-minute piece in the style of a documentary on Channel 4, that featured a verbatim reconstruction of interviews that Regan himself conducted with a man named Chris. Chris was a South Londoner who had spent the majority of his life being a ‘horrible, arrogant, violent cunt’ as he self-describes at one point, but eventually reformed, left the city and settled down with a wife and child in the countryside. In this dramatisation of Regan’s interactions with Chris, beloved British thespian Jason Isaacs transforms his usual well-spoken, patrician-like manner into a snarling, complex and unpredictable beast, in an utterly compelling and authentic performance that inspires disgust, pity and, above all, abject fear.
As the film opens, Leo begins proceedings by inquiring as to how Chris acquired the rather nasty scar that consumes the right side of his face. With a casualness akin to someone telling a mundane anecdote about a frustrating shopping experience, Chris replies with a tale of being involved in a vicious pub fight where his opponent glassed him, his anger festering for months until he finally tracked the culprit down, at which point Chris proceeded to stage an appalling revenge attack. Watching him relate it so normally whilst chomping on toast is simultaneously engrossing and utterly horrific, and the stories that Chris proceeds to tell about his life only increase in intensity, misery and horror.
Traversing his early childhood in a home ruled by a brutal, volatile thug of a father, Chris gradually comes clean about various episodes of armed robbery, witness intimidation, time spent in prison and general interludes of extreme violence. He comes across as a cagey and intolerant man from the get-go, quick to take offence and become suspicious, and his speech is littered with non-stop profanity, namely ‘fuck’ and ‘cunt’ used almost in an adjective capacity, but it never carries an air of gratuity. He gives the impression that it is an inherent tool by which he articulates his daunting energy. He expounds values of respecting women, the importance of feeling contrite for his past crimes and taking care of his family as best he can, but the more he plays the raconteur from Hell, the more Leo notices inconsistencies in his professed change of character. It is a facet that is compounded in an unsettling sequence where Leo interviews Chris’ wife Sophie, who tells of her own problems with his dark and explosive personality, and laments the possibility that her intuition that he ‘has the capability to be a good person’ may just be nothing more than wishful thinking.
I would genuinely posit Chris (a fictional name, the real subject insisted on anonymity) as being the most impressive character that Isaacs has ever managed to execute. The brusque, profane and unfriendly London roughneck tones down to a tee, he infuses Chris with a highly threatening, dead-eyed surliness that makes you want to get the hell away from him throughout the entire film, a characteristic that nevertheless invites the audience to mentally-emotionally ponder the nuances as Chris informs Leo of some truly horrifying character-forming moments where you can only feel sympathy for him. It would be an oversight to summarise Chris as an evil man, but he has certainly behaved in ways that could be conceptually referenced as being evil. There is always an ambiguous quality as to whether he is truly sorry for all of the brutal shit he’s committed, whether he’s merely trying to convince himself that he is, or whether he’s a narcissistic sociopath who fundamentally enjoys relating stories of his glory days as a callous and dangerous animal.
When Scars originally aired, it drew complaints from some viewers who were angry that any work of art would provide this type of person with a voice, and were quizzical as to the overall artistic and ethical merit of the film. While I can obviously empathise with these concerns, I couldn’t disagree more with any sentiments that it should never have aired or that it has no point. It is a raw and unabashed study of a man who is clearly still in a transitory period from violent career criminal to run-of-the-mill husband, father and working man. Chris isn’t an extraterrestrial or some sort of demon, he’s just a person, albeit one with a mentality that has facilitated a far more extreme and unsavoury life than you or I are likely to have had. Something resembling remorse has been brewing inside of him for many years now, and it is a brave and refreshing take to hear it all from the horse’s mouth (with Jason Isaacs as a conduit, of course), his ambivalence towards certain past activities and sudden swings in mood indicating that people like him have deeply entrenched problems that will not evaporate overnight, will not be helped by the red-top tabloid cries of ‘Hang ’em!’, and will inevitably influence their behaviour, whether they like it or not. People like Chris are created, by nature, nurture or a mixture thereof, and the fact that Scars goes deeply into the ‘why’ of that makes it a very important picture indeed, as far as I’m concerned.
It is by no means a fun film, but it is an excellent one. Just under an hour of listening to somebody talk about how much of a horrible prick they used to be/still are is something that probably won’t go down too well on date night, but if you’re intrigued by the sound of a raw and uncompromising drama that ranks among superb British social-realist classics such as Nil By Mouth and Made In Britain, made possible by an absolutely outstanding performance from Jason Isaacs, it is one of my favourites, and I haven’t seen a better example of its calibre since.
P.S. Here are the URL’s to the film on Youtube and Vimeo, depending on what your location allows you.