Christmas films come in all shapes and sizes. There are the traditional ones, such as White Christmas, A Christmas Story, A Miracle on 34th Street, and A Charlie Brown Christmas, which tend to put carolers in a festive mood. Then, there’re the atypical ones, such as Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, The Night Before, and Batman Returns, which tap into the spirit of the holiday without necessarily basking in it. What both types of films do is offer a redemptive tale wherein the heroes confront a painful past to create an opportunity for a hopeful future. Adding to the atypical merriment is 2016 release Jet Trash from director Charles Henri Belleville (The Inheritance), based on the novel Go from author Simon Lewis, a dramedy which finds four lost individuals on a collision course with their sins.
Former Londoners Lee (Robert Sheehan) and Sol (Osy Ikhile) are hiding out in Goa, India, enjoying the sun, sand, and parties that the small community offers. On Christmas Eve, the two boys invite their reclusive roommate Mike (Jasper Pääkkönen), a former soldier-turned-pacifist, as they head to a special party where Sol can let off steam and Lee can try to earn some cash by selling drugs. Already tense for the attention Lee might bring down on them, Sol becomes more agitated when Vix (Sofia Boutella), a girl from London with a shared history, suddenly arrives looking for Lee. In time, they’ll find out whether her arrival is mere coincidence or a harbinger of something worse.
At first glance, Jet Trash seems like a mash-up genre picture emulating something between Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino with its dialogue-driven scenes and penchant for slow-motion mixed with dizzying montages. What audiences get, however, is less a reduction of those works – in their familiarity – and more a deft usage of them. The opening of the film features a man (Craig Parkinson) speaking to a young girl as images blur past. Is the man telling the girl – and us – a story or is it merely prophetic? As Jet Trash continues, the usage of montages serves as a bridge between past and present, acting, in some cases, as memory for the characters that the audience becomes privy to. At no point is the illusion of storytelling dropped, so that what the audience witnesses could be nothing more than fabrication or just an adventurous bedtime story of redemption told to a child on Christmas Eve. It’s a clever stylistic move which holds up given the other visual aspects Belleville puts to use. For example, set on the sandy coastline of Goa, the sets are mixtures of beautiful beaches and drab shanties, yet Belleville makes each scene feel immersive through clever camerawork or lighting. Almost every time one of the characters enters water, the camera flows – cresting and submerging along with them so that the moments become as disorienting to the audience as it may be to the characters. As the audience first meets Lee, the sky is blue and the land a beautiful, healthy green, but the deeper into the story the audience goes, the land of Goa turns a more sickly tanish-green. The colors become sharper as tensions rise and violence ensues, highlighting the collateral damage of Lee and Sol’s choices. But it’s not just the camerawork or cinematography that make Jet Trash stand out. Dan M. Brown’s script is razor-sharp, even as it bounces between timelines to flesh out the narrative for the audience. This is typically a trick that would grate after some time, yet Belleville’s pacing, as well as the natural inclination around the holidays to turn inward and reflect, makes the switches in time not only seem necessary, but ideal. Where some films use this editing style to attempt some form of flare where a standard chronological structure would do, utilizing an out-of-sync structure here amplifies the more thriller-leaning aspects of the story.
Interesting direction and an engaging script only get a film so far. Luckily, the strong cast connects with the narrative in a manner which intensifies the film in the process. Audiences familiar with Sheehan’s previous works – Misfits, The Song of Sway Lake, Bad Samaritan – are familiar with various scrappy characters Sheehan tends to play, making his role as Lee seem effortless. Balancing the bad luck vibe with the innocent charm, Sheehan embodies the affable rogue in an unarguably fun performance. As Lee’s unfortunate travel companion, Ikhile gives Sol a gravitas which naturally grounds the emotional weight of Jet Trash. Sol’s story is of someone trying to do right who is caught in the wake of others, desperate to find his footing, and the audience can feel it radiating off of him. Boutella’s Vix is likewise characterized, though most of her backstory is explained through the lens of the men around her. This would be exceptionally aggravating, except that the conclusion offers up an explanation that not only feels organic to the story, but makes her a whole personal whose mystery is a necessary component. Considering Boutella’s natural charisma’s been put to extraordinary use in both Kingsman: The Secret Service and Atomic Blonde, this quieter turn demonstrates a deeper, soulful side she’s not often allowed to tap into. Of the characters, Pääkkönen’s Mike is oddly the most interesting. An outsider to the events that bring Lee, Sol, and Vix together, his path of redemption strangely fits in lock-step with all the others. Playing a man clearly torn apart by battle, possibly suffering from PTSD, and desperate to put his soul back together, most of Pääkkönen’s character work is physical and Pääkkönen makes every moment count. While these four aren’t the only members of the cast, the ones that remain – Parkinson, Adelayo Adedayo, Raj Zutshi, among others – never feel wasted or stereotyped. Each are given motivations and clear narrative arcs. Unexpected for side characters in the focused story of four leads Belleville brings to life.
Jet Trash is an unexpected delight made so by an exceptionally engaging cast, deft direction, and evocative cinematography. It’s not a surprise to see Sheehan turn in a fun performance, as he frequently plays charismatic characters, but Ikhile and Boutella carry the film with their radiating quiet. It’s the stillness they provide that grounds Jet Trash and makes the serious moments feel impactful. Possessing a wonderful balance of grit and giddiness, Jet Trash makes for an unlikely addition in your holiday film rotation, but it certainly wouldn’t be out of place alongside Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Bad Santa, or Scrooged.
Available now on DVD and digital.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.