In director Jamie Thraves’s new independent film, Pickups, Aidan Gillen plays a method actor (also) named Aidan, who is in the process of playing a serial killer. As Aidan’s life and killings unfold, both he and the audience are invited to witness the fantasy and reality of an actor’s emotions.
Pickups, as director Jamie Thraves said himself, is a challenging film. It is candid and unapologetic. It is inspired by Aiden Gillen and (partially) Jamie Thraves’s real-life experiences, and yet it is not a documentary but a commentary—a dark humor narrative of one man’s life. If anything, it is a study of an actor getting into character. We are introduced to Aidan through a series of voiceovers. We are told that Aidan has some back pains, sometimes he is shy, and he might even have a stalker. As more and more comments are given by the voiceover, the film sets on an exploration through visual devices that build a degree of intimacy between the actor and the audience that can rarely be achieved in mainstream narrative films.
Thraves’s taste for extreme close-ups from his earlier work like The Low Down resurfaces in this film. The camera often brings us so close to Aidan that we can see every wrinkle on his face. There is always a feeling of some candid truth hiding behind his eyes, irretrievable by the audience. It is ironic that one can get so uncomfortably close to the camera’s subject, and yet can be unable to understand what lies behind the subject’s eyes. However, when combined with the repeated rack focus shots, these close-ups can take the audience on new dimensions of complex emotional experiences. In one instance, we witness one of Aidan’s kills and right after get caught up in shifts of rack focus, moving in and out with his breath and adrenaline rush. This brings the thrill of the kill to life, not just reflecting Aidan’s state of mind but throwing the audience directly in the midst of his experience. Just like that Pickups unapologetically hurls the audience into the aesthetic of the darkest corners of the mind, leaving one to grapple with how it makes them feel.
Just like it bravely pushes the audience into a territory of primal emotions, Pickups also bravely pushes the dimensions of the fourth wall in a way that affects the experience of the entire narrative. In one sequence, during a visit to a friend Aidan says he’s “working with Jamie on a film”, thus breaking the fourth wall. This break will later blur the line between reality and fantasy. As Aidan’s mannerisms become indiscernible from that of his character, we cease to perceive whether Aidan has acted out a murder in his film or if he murdered somebody for real. In a sense, we get a chance to observe how we begin to believe his constructed persona. In a sense, the gaze we direct at Aidan becomes redirected at ourselves. Like a true piece of art, Pickups holds up a mirror to us. We think we’re staring at Aidan, but we end up staring right back at ourselves.
Perhaps the most interesting part of Pickups lies in its ability to hold up a mirror to its audience. The direct interplays with the gaze often question the voyeuristic and exhibitionist properties of our culture. For example, the film draws our attention to the phenomenon of the selfie every time someone wants to take a picture with Aidan. There is always a moment of discomfort when Aidan becomes a mere object to be exhibited. At times, Aidan will turn back and look directly into the camera, worried about his invisible stalker. Those times are the most disarming to the voyeuristic audience, for suddenly he exposes us, returning our gaze. Are we then the real stalker? Are we the real weight on Aidan’s back? Is he, the killer of this fantasy world, in reality just a mere victim of our gaze? Predator or victim? Reality or fantasy? A film that is unafraid to push the boundaries of genre and storytelling, Pickups will leave you with these questions and more.