Unexpected Gifts: Film review of “Looted,” by Rene van Pannevis

Looted, directed by Rene van Pannevis, UK, 2019, available on virtual cinema and on-demand.

by Professor Robert Abrams, Weill Cornell, New York.

Alert: the review contains plot spoilers!  

The central story of Looted is a bitter father-son saga, a tragedy about parental failure and filial remorse.  The film also includes explicit depictions of terminal illness, caregiving and the heightened emotional states that flare in dying patients and their family members, but in so doing it does not neglect the possibility of unusual resolutions and unexpected gifts.

The father is Oswald [Tom Fisher], a middle-aged man who is dying slowly of mesothelioma, a condition he contracted from exposure to asbestos as a merchant marine.  Gasping for air, he still speaks fondly of the beauty and romanticism of the sea, of the thrilling freedom that he could not bring himself to give up until illness forced him to do so.  Aware of his grim prognosis, he refuses hospitalization but does accept the weekly palliative pleurocentesis that eases his breathing and, for the present, keeps him alive.

Looted – official YouTube trailer

But Oswald has not yet received any financial compensation from his former employers. Since there is no money, he leans on his son, Rob [Charley Palmer Rothwell], to be his caregiver.  In his mid-twenties, Rob has no job and no serious prospects for landing one.  To appease his father, he dresses in respectable white shirts and ties and pretends that he is going on promising employment interviews.  What is really happening is that Rob earns money to keep the household afloat by participating in car thefts with a gang of grifters that includes Leo [Thomas Turgoose], another young man, and Leo’s ostensible girlfriend, Katia [Morgane Polanski].

Unsparingly from the start, Looted shows the hard reality of caregiving.  Oswald has a sallow, bilious appearance, breathes with effort and is clearly in pain.  He must be hand-fed and lifted off his bed (at considerable strain for Rob) for toileting and showering.  Even viewers familiar with the tasks of caregiving may recoil at what is shown.  In an exceptional feat of acting, distinctly unlike the images of dying patients in many other films, Tom Fisher’s Oswald looks and behaves exactly like a person with a terminal illness.  All considered, Looted delivers heavy doses of medical authenticity along with familial conflict.

Meanwhile, Rob carries on with Leo, stealing cars and bringing the hot properties to a shady garage-owner in exchange for cash. Rob’s friend Leo is not at all like him.  Leo is a cruel, basically sociopathic young man, but beneath his superficial toughness, he is immature and dependent. Oswald, meeting Leo, immediately grasps his troublesome nature.   But with the Polish-born Katia, it is different.  Oswald is able to look beyond her punkish style, discerning a young woman with empathy and depth.  “She’s a special girl,” he tells Rob pointedly.

But one might naturally ask: Why is Rob sacrificing for a father who never sacrificed for him? This is the enigma at the heart of the film.  At one point the viewer is told that, with Rob’s own mother dead or otherwise absent and his father far away, pursuing his fantasies at sea, the young boy had been left to be raised by Oswald’s mother.  In a painfully sad recording, a five- or six-year-old Rob is heard referring to his father as someone he does not know. So, Rob, beyond a vague commitment to doing what is right for an ailing parent, appears to be making a last-ditch bid to establish a meaningful connection with his father.  But for all the intimacy involved in total caregiving, theirs is an unsustainable relationship, shakily constructed on false premises and impossible hopes.  Dutiful Rob is actually seething with anger and defeat.  He is crushed when he receives a final letter denying insurance compensation for father’s work-related injury, because that means there can be no escape from his present circumstances.

In the crisis that ensues, Oswald learns the truth about Rob’s secret life and chooses to cease all treatment, including the pleurocentesis, implying that disappointment in his son has caused him to lose all motivation to remain alive.  At the Hospice Center, the dying man and his son finally have it out, each pouring forth his share of pain and rage.  Rob, rushing away from the Center, is physically overcome by sorrow, shame, and anger for the whole sorry tale.

Having looted to support Oswald, it is Rob himself who has been “robbed” or “looted” of a secure childhood with a loving parent.  But the film in fact tells a story of mutual failure. This father and son have let each other down: the father having valued his personal gratification over parenting his young son when it might have mattered; and the son having given everything for his father but remaining unwilling to be open, when integrity might have mattered, too.  But in a coup of story-telling, a spark of hope arises, personified by Katia.  Faith in the healing power of Katia’s love has been Oswald’s parting gift to Rob, a legacy from father to son and a memorable affirmation for the viewers of this film.

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