How would we really react if the world was about to end? Somehow I doubt we’d saddle up and steal a plane, because what would be the point? What could we do? What good would any of it do? Chances are, we’d sit and wait, and try to pretend it wasn’t happening. That’s what people do. We ignore the inevitable at the cost of not being prepared for it when it comes. Rocks That Bleed, the new film from Bertie Gilbert and Sammy Paul (co-director of the utterly fantastic The Fleeting Little Life of Peter Wright), explores that grim reality. It defies action movie clichés, and even though it’s set during the end of the world, it never feels like an end of the world film. It instead feels much more like a character study that just so happens to be set as the world is saying its final goodbyes.
Rocks that bleed (a title which is either shown in all-caps or all lowercase so I’m never sure which words to capitalise, ta for that Gilbert) is technically an apocalypse film, but the end of the world mostly sticks to the sidelines. What is causing the final end of humanity is only hinted at by excessive heat and the presence of “Here Comes the Sun” at the end. The main focus of the film is instead on its two main characters, Joe and Sidney; they’re brothers, but they’ve not seen each other for a year and a half, Sidney having ignored his brother’s calls and never meeting up with him. Joe comes to Sidney’s house, to spend a final day with him before the Earth’s final day comes around. The two hold awkward and brief conversations, seemingly unable to find the right words to say. They reminisce about Sidney’s seventeenth and eighteenth birthdays, and how much their relationship seemingly changed in the course of one year.
Jack Howard as Joe is a revelation, and I don’t think it would be possible for anyone to act more against type. He’s tired, he’s awkward, and he’s sad-eyed; in other words, the polar opposite to the Jack Howard of the real world. It’s almost as if he’s trying to make himself as un-photogenic as is humanly possible, to do something completely different, and he pulls it off wonderfully. His performance is one of subtleties; he’s a man who has always tried to put a face on things, but now he can’t muster up the strength to do so. He’s broken, and even though he’s with his brother he feels desperately alone. Also, Gilbert’s performance might be the best he’s ever personally done, playing Sidney as a conflicted and insecure individual who hides his emotions behind a seemingly emotionless face.
Some of the themes that the film explores have been explored by some of Gilbert’s prior work, and the biggest similarity in terms of subject matter and tone to me is the very short short film Cosmic Divide, a film that detailed someone waiting and perhaps even dreading their brother’s return after a huge amount of time. Something that the two films definitely share is the amount of audience interpretation they both invite.
Rocks That Bleed is deliberately ambiguous, only providing slight hints about what Sid did in the year and a half he was apart from his family and working with his fellow “arty f*cking pricks”. Chris Kendall appears briefly in Sid’s only flashback for all of one minute and twenty-three seconds (that’s right, I counted) as a figure from Sid’s past, not mentioned before or again. It’s up to the audience to figure out who he is. Joe is a much more open character; his past is much plainer to see, his emotions easier to read. Sidney is a closed book, almost emotionless in tone and in behaviour, and only occasionally does his mask slip and do we see the tortured individual inside.
Something the film touches upon (and something I wish it could have perhaps explored with more depth) is the idea that ultimately Joe and Sidney’s problems don’t matter anymore. The world is ending, and very soon they will vanish without a trace. Their arguments will have been rendered meaningless, their past never to be known by anyone else. They will be gone, and their lives will have gone as well.
The film’s score, composed by Tom Rosenthal (not to be confused with the guy off Friday Night Dinner) is pitch perfect, complimenting each scene brilliantly and always fitting the tone just so. It’s used copiously in the first half, and (in a clever move) is almost completely absent from the second, replaced for the most part with an unsettling ambient roar that reminds the audience that the end is indeed nigh, and that there’s something so much bigger happening outside. A final flourish is an emotional piano-led cover of The Beatles’ Here Comes the Sun, providing a darkly comic and deeply tragic tone to the film’s final moments (although I would have also accepted Talking Heads’ Burning Down the House). This is one of the few films where I feel like I need to buy the soundtrack, and I hope it becomes available soon; it’s fantastic in its own right, not just as a backdrop. At some points it almost seems like a third character in the film.
Technically it’s pretty much faultless, with the seemingly omnipresent Ciaran O’Brien outdoing himself once again, juggling both cinematography and colouring and doing both exceptionally well, with the oppressive colour of red dominating the frame in latter portions of the film; not only reflected the chaos outside, but also the chaos inside. Ironically, the rose-tinted flashbacks haven’t got a hint of red in them. The camerawork is assured and Howard’s editing is too.
The film is not always an easy watch. It’s an incredibly sad film, but one with some wonderful moments of both light and dark comedy, and one with wonderfully drawn characters, with Howard’s Joe lightening the mood.
Ultimately though, it almost seems like Joe has lost hope in the last moments of the film. He stares out in space, barely registering what his brother is saying to him. Has he given up? Has he finally realised what is to happen to him? That ultimately, everything that came before him means nothing now, and that there will be no trace of his past for anyone to see? Perhaps. Or perhaps it’s him remembering his wife, who has died a year beforehand; maybe he wishes he can die with her. And there’s Sidney, finally maskless, desperately trying to make up for lost time, desperately trying to find out how his brother is feeling. But it’s too late.
As with anything, there are a few problems here and there. I personally felt that the film’s references to other things felt quite jarring and out of place. While a joke about Joe not getting Spider-Man was funny, it pulled me out of the experience. I didn’t see Joe anymore, I saw Jack Howard, and while a Dean Dobbs cameo was amusing, it had the same effect on me, and I didn’t really see a point. But those are truly the nitpickiest of nitpicks, and honestly I’m at a loss to find any more faults.
Ultimately, Rocks That Bleed is brilliant. There’s really no way of putting it. It looks great, sounds great, and underneath the beautiful presentation is an earnest, heartfelt and deeply moving story of two brothers desperately wishing to go back to the way things used to be as oblivion approaches. While I can’t say that it’s my favourite film by either Gilbert (Grey Area holds that spot on the metaphorical podium) or Paul (the aforementioned Peter Wright holds that place in my cold, icy heart), it’s still a work of art, and a pretty amazing work of art at that, which explores both familiar and uncharted territory for both the directors, and it’s a film that deserves to have its praises sung from the (figurative, or literally if you can be bothered) rooftops. At the time of writing it hasn’t even reached 100,000 views, and considering the sheer amount of time and effort and presentation that went into it, that’s a crime, you hear? A crime that must be rectified. If you haven’t watched it, do so. Like, right now.
ROCKS THAT BLEED is a short film written and directed by Bertie Gilbert and Sammy Paul.
Watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PtUUvQtChNc
Follow its directors on twitter: @ICOEPR and @bertieglbrt
Also watch THE FLEETING LITTLE LIFE OF PETER WRIGHT, a brave short film about depression by Sammy Paul and TimH that quite frankly deserves everyone’s attention: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zIO4j4ze8Nc
About the writer:
Charlie McIlwain is a teenage “writer” who clamours for recognition that he really doesn’t deserve. Follow him on Twitter: @ComedicPerson