The title of Rowan Athale’s directorial debut feature, Wasteland, describes the characters’ homeland: a desolate, decrepit Yorkshire with little to offer its young, ambitious denizens. The reference is the first of many socially conscious signifiers in the film, yet Wasteland is at heart a heist movie, snappy and dry in its humor, clever in its elaborate robbery scheme, and somewhat bloated and unspooled in its storytelling. But unlike the gritty Guy Ritchie template, it follows the aesthetic of Drive, pushed to a maximalist color and lighting scheme in its interior scenes that’s then neatly balanced by ashen, barren landscapes.
In flashback, a bruised, bleeding Harvey (Luke Treadaway) tells a stern but curious D.I. West (an underused Timothy Spall) a frank, ridiculously detailed story. Harvey’s face gleams more from a self-satisfied smirk than the shiner on his eye, yet his countenance betrays his tale. After being framed by local drug pin Steven Roper (Neil Maskell), whom the police have been unable to link to any serious crimes, Harvey leaves jail with two goals: restart his life and exact revenge on Roper. The plan, a nearly impossible scheme to pilfer ₤50,000 from Roper’s safe in a working men’s club, is carried out with the help of friends Dodd (Matthew Lewis), Dempsey (Iwan Rheon), and Charlie (Gerard Kearns). Harvey’s story ends with the group’s heist gone astray and a fight with Roper, whom the police soon catch red-handed with drugs and stolen quid from the club’s cash registers. West marvels at the coincidence, only to find a secretly recorded tape from Harvey outlining how cleverly the boys pulled off the perfect crime, killing two birds with one stone.
Athale explicitly codes his film with references to the characters’ once-bright futures that have since faded away: Harvey, who entered prison without ever committing a crime, lost his one shot at a management-training program. Similarly, a perfectly qualified Charlie can’t find work as a welder. In many heist films, criminals reserve their jackpot for retirement or luxury purposes. For these lads, the money is an investment for a real future, one outside the British boondocks: a partnership in a friend’s successful Amsterdam coffee shop. These kids aren’t pursuing crime professionally, but they recognize the system is a rigged one. They’re willing to bend a few laws to get theirs. Wasteland mollifies the messy moral questions at play here, namely by writing in a scapegoat in Roper and zeroing in on the heist. Unlike The Angels’ Share, which starts off as a social drama and turns into a heist film halfway through, Wasteland at least knows its genre. But the film tries so hard to look trendy—much like its supposedly low-income, Puma-wearing leads—that it fails to truly provide any significance or value for its topical social backdrop.