Adapted from Stephen McGeagh’s novel of the same name, Simeon Halligan’s third feature Habit is a difficult film to categorise. Genre spanning ingredients, ranging from social realism to gory indulgence combine to intoxicating effect, into a film that refuses to conform to initial expectations.
Filmed on the dark and unwelcoming backstreets of Manchester, Halligan and cinematographer James Swift have created a blood-drenched calling card for the city, with garish neon shining beacon-like through the rainy gloom. Streetlights struggle to meet the challenge of illuminating ever darkening corners, putting you in mind of Gothic noir from the past, where creatures lurk in the shadows awaiting unwary travellers. And those themes run right through the film.
Struggling to find his place in the world, Michael (Elliot James Langridge) lurches from one drunken evening to the next, each funded by benefit payments and handouts from his increasingly fraught sister. A chance encounter with the perplexing Lee (Jessica Barden) changes everything, and he becomes drawn into a world where society’s undesirables are viciously preyed upon by those with dark intent.
Precisely paced, Habit is careful in revealing its secrets. There are no twists as such; more plot points that edge you closer to the truth, as Halligan steers his film with confidence, applying a soft touch when necessary, being bolder elsewhere; one scene in particular featuring a blood-soaked orgy is expertly handled with giallo-esque style. The performances also reflect the bleak aesthetic, with each actor conveying an appropriate sense of dread as their fate becomes increasingly unavoidable. Langridge is impressive as the doe-eyed innocent enveloped by the macabre world. Roxanne Pallett and Joanne Mitchell deliver conviction in roles that could have been clichés, but it is William Ash as pimp-cum-patriarch Ian who excels. Rarely has the Mancunian accent been used to deliver lines of such subdued threat, while still providing a familial warmth as he herds the errant souls under his charge.
These strong performances do somewhat overwhelm parts of the film, with secondary characters resigned to being barely that, and motives, while understandably ambiguous, become overly vague at times. Some viewers may also find the final act a little troublesome, as loose ends remain resolutely untied, but given what’s gone before, it’s difficult to visualise where else the story could have gone.
Minor criticisms, though, because what Habit does well, it does extremely well. Manchester has rarely looked quite so menacingly beautiful, and with McGeagh’s novel paid reverential respect, this is a story with themes intensely relevant to the modern day. Beautifully filmed, stylishly shocking in places, with a dark heart that draws you irresistibly in, Habit is a film to seek out.