Bait (2019): The Best Cornish Western Ever Put To Screen

Genre is a funny little thing. The boom and bust cycle of genres have always fascinated me. It seems to me that as soon as genres become defined they immediately become unfashionable. A cliche only becomes cliche when we put a name to it. All we need as evidence is to look at the rise and then mainstreamification of mumblecore as a genre or style. 

As a writer about film, I specialise in writing about Giallo cinema, and as a writer about Giallo, I am constantly frustrated by the limited ways we can talk about what films are in the genre, (this does come back around to ‘Bait’, I promise). If you weren’t aware, Giallo is a subgenre of Thriller that kind of represents the crossing over point between Agatha Christie murder mysteries like ‘And Then There Were None’, and slashers like ‘Halloween’. If you’re looking for the most definitive titles, ‘Deep Red’ & ‘Blood & Black Lace’ are often cited. There are many films it would be incredibly important to the evolution of the genre if we could talk about them as Giallo, if the limits weren’t a limit of being made within the same country & the same 10 years the discussion would be so much richer. All the hard divide does is limit each genre to various tropes that stop them growing, then if they break those tropes enough we point at them and say, ‘well that’s not part of the genre anymore’, like some gentleman’s club. This leads to boom & bust of genres, most famously with the western, and it’s here that ‘Bait’ is relevant. 

It feels like as soon as Spaghetti Westerns turned into revisionist westerns, as soon as the grimdark look at the realistic violence of history that Leone was borrowing from Kurasowa, as soon as we said John Ford didn’t seem to know Native Americans were humans, as soon as we said this through the medium of film, it seemed like that was it for the genre. Stuck forever saying the same thing about other westerns for all eternity. It’s this kind of dogged rule-abiding that’s lead to some genre stagnation. This is why westerns like ‘The 3:10 to Yuma’, or ‘Bone Tomahawk’, or even back in the day, Eastwood’s ‘High Plains Drifter’, are so exciting – because they’re actually out to make an exciting movie outside of that dogged back and forth. Previously the only films that have really done this are films that are functionally westerns outside of the western rubric. These being films like ‘No Country For Old Men’, ‘Django Unchained’, or even ‘Straw Dogs’. These films which escape the strict limits of ‘it’s a western as long as it’s set in the old west’ are the ones that really innovate for the genre. 

So then I sit down to watch Mark Jenkin’s ‘Bait’. A film I know nothing about other than the fact that it was shot on film without sync sound, all dialogue & environmental sounds recorded in post, (inspiringly, most Italian cinema, Giallo & western, used this technique), and the stock of film is one that I’ve shot on myself without sync sound, 4:3, 16mm, black and white. I knew it was the most successful cornish film, and I knew it’d be about gentrification. That’s about it. So when I see these tight close-ups, this building tension between two groups of people that you know is going to end in tragedy, and these little power plays outside the law, this fear of urbanisation, or modernisation and exactly what that means, a fear the dark side of ‘the future’, I thought, “holy shit, this is a western”, which is a framework that might just make the whole film make total sense. 

In terms of the filmmaking references that are thrown about for this film, most people have said Andrew Kötting and David Lynch, the director himself has cited Nicolas Roeg, and these are probably all coming out as a way to describe the film’s kaleidoscopic editing, which is properly surreal and weird. The film at points looks as if individual frames have been developed negatively, which does create this distortion of reality and deep foreboding. It does take from Roeg the idea of the past, present, and future bleeding into itself. Like Roeg, Jenkin pulls time in on itself where moments resonate like memory across the totality of the runtime. For me though, the citations are Leone, Eastwood, and Kurosawa. It’s hardly epic, but it has a broiling tension & paranoia to it. It does have big demonstrations, but like the best of each of these directors’ work, the most important things are what’s not being said. There are so many times you expect people to say things but then you realise that it’s understood without it ever needing to be said. A simple action allows everyone in a pub to know a dark secret without it ever needing to be exposited. Edward Rowe makes the perfect Eastwood archetype, his blank glare can say 1000 words and when he does talk it’s with a double meaning that is more cutting than any direct insult. He has a begrudged wit to him that is immediately, identifiably English. He is surrounded by perfect foils in one respect or another, he has his Tonto in Chloe Endean, the posh family add a totally different dynamic not just to the film but the town, triggering the conflict in the film, and his brother’s defeated, grief-stricken stoicism is endlessly compelling.
I do just wish to also say that what Mark Jenkin has accomplished with his chosen medium is incredible. Having shot a movie in the same way as him before, I know how uniquely challenging it is, and I was expecting the boxy aspect ratio, slightly muted sound, & really scratchy film to be a barrier of involvement to me, but it absolutely wasn’t. Within the first five minutes I was totally involved and in fact, the scratchy, handmade nature of it only made things better. It made the whole thing feel… tangible. The director hand developed his own celluloid at his home and it shows. Watching it feels like one man with a perfect handle on his craft having something to say and saying it with total, utmost clarity of vision & language. Some people speak best through their bodies, some people speak best through words, some people speak best through the language of shots, sound, and editing, the language of cinema. Mark Jenkin is one of those people.

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