Oliver Jackson-Cohen and Jenna Coleman currently star in the Prime Video series Wilderness together, and they’re reteamed in Jackdaw, a blistering thriller set in the bleak, industrial landscape of northern England. It’s like someone said, “Make the motorcycle scene in Under The Skin an entire movie,” and then succeeded perfectly (I realize Scotland and northern England are separate countries, leave me alone). Jackson-Cohen stars as Jack, a former motocross champ and recent Army vet returned to his charmless home in the north of England. The first half-hour of the film is light on dialogue and details, but writer/director Jamie Childs, making his feature directorial debut, plants enough visual cues to tell us Jack is good at bikes, and his Army past implies a certain skillset, too.
It works amazingly well, recalling the spare, propulsive action of Drive—the thumping techno score from Damon Baxter (aka the DJ Deadly Avenger) and Si Begg also harks back to Drive—though Jackdaw is steeped not in the neon and sun of southern California, but the windswept coast and stark industrial landscape of northern England. Jackdaw is not as stylish as Drive—a tall order—but it has something of the same lean, mean storytelling, and Jackson-Cohen’s largely wordless performance is superb. We don’t need the whole story, one look at Jack’s troubled eyes tells us enough, that Jack has been through some sh-t and cannot catch a break.
We’re dropped straight into Jack’s latest contretemps when he kayaks to a buoy in the North Sea, where he retrieves a mysterious package (obviously drugs). He is immediately pursued by men on wave runners, and then a man on a horse, which is strange and yet somehow befitting Jack’s utterly luckless night, which only gets worse when he returns home to find his younger brother kidnapped, held hostage for the drugs Jack retrieved. It would be comical except Jack’s luck is so bad it takes on the proportions of a Greek tragedy, a feeling only enhanced by the narrative breadcrumbs that coalesce in a devastating family face off.
Jackdaw has a plethora of bike chases involving people on horses, other bikes, and cars, and even though the vast majority of the film is shot at night, it is all very easy to discern, proving once again that dark scenes can be legible. The action is also well choreographed, and Childs, working with cinematographer Will Baldy and editor David Fisher, pieces together a series of increasingly high stakes, adrenaline-pumping action sequences. Though Jackdaw is ostensibly about bleak things—post-industrial community wastelands, under-resourced kids growing up into hopeless adults, lack of support for veterans—the action keeps it from being a bummer. It’s tense, nervy, and earns its downbeats through the spare storytelling and excellent performances.
Thomas Turgoose is also a standout as Craig, a seemingly hapless guy Jack encounters at a rave, and he adds a lighter touch to the film, a needed balance to Jackson-Cohen’s brooding intensity. Jackdaw is full of people giving great one-off performances, from Rory McCann to Vivienne Acheampong, but less effective is Jenna Coleman. She is not believable as a rough and tumble biker for even one second. She is better used in the quiet, intimate scenes between her and Jackson-Cohen, but the instant she has to project toughness she becomes the film’s weakest point. Also, shoutout to Will Baldy and the entire camera crew for figuring out how to get the five-two Coleman and six-three Jackson-Cohen into frame together. She is wearing comically huge boots.
Jackdaw feels like a little bit of a throwback, as does any contemporary film that is content to just tell a simple story, a chase movie that isn’t trying to do anything other than be a good chase movie. It succeeds in that order, propelled by well-shot action and well-acted characters. Oliver Jackson-Cohen is especially good, turning his sad boy persona into something harder and colder, but not meaner. He walks a fine line as Jack, making him both believably dangerous and vulnerable, and the world around him feels like exactly the kind of place that would produce a man like Jack. In the best possible way, Jackdaw is the kind of taut thriller we used to stumble across late at night on cable.
This review was published during the SAG-AFTRA strike of 2023. The work being reviewed would not exist without the labor of actors.