Gary King (Simon Pegg) is a terrible person. He is selfish. He is an addict who puts his next drink above even the safety of his friends. He is narcissistic. He refuses to grow up. And he has mired himself in the memory of a time when life was full of endless potential – the night he and his friends attempted “the Golden Mile.” 12 pubs, 12 pints. An impossibility, even for kids just out of high school. But for Gary, that night was the beginning of the world – when his conquering the Golden Mile would be the start of a glorious life worthy of someone called “the King.”
They failed. And Gary’s not so happy now. All he wants is to go back – to that time when he was the King, when he was the big man around town, leader of his mates, cock of the walk who could have any woman he wanted. So he reassembles his dubious old friends Peter (Eddie Marsan, hilariously and touchingly meek), Oliver (Martin Freeman, great as ever), Steven (Paddy Considine, soulful)…but there’s one member of the old gang who’s more reluctant than even these three: Andy Knightley (Nick Frost). Unlike the other films in the Cornetto Trilogy, here Gary and Andy are not friends, despite what Gary thinks. There are allusions to some incident, an “accident” that broke these two apart, apparently for good. And yet, as the film comes to reveal time and again, you can’t fight Gary on what he wants. Thus, all four join Gary as they return to Newton Haven, a little town notable for only two things: England’s first roundabout (a lovely little visual metaphor for how Gary has lived life), and the Golden Mile.
When they get there, it’s sadly disappointing. Every pub along the mile is the same (“Starbucked,” as Steven says). None of the townspeople seem to remember them. And their encounter with Oliver’s sister Sam (Rosamund Pike, lovely if sadly underused) is a disaster for Gary and Steven, both of whom harbor feelings for her. As it goes on, Gary becomes more and more frustrated, and the quest is about to end.
And then something happens: the film kicks into an insane, glorious gear that’s one part Withnail & I, one part Body Snatchers, and one part the fight scenes from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. The plot twists and turns are wonderful (though, if you’re an Edgar Wright aficionado, you know to pay attention early on as he sets up everything that will happen), and the action puts every blockbuster this summer to shame. And it all rises to a truly remarkable, fearless ending that is at once triumph and tragedy, that truly delivers (in an enormously unexpected way) on the title.
Wright sometimes is dismissed (unfairly) as a filmmaker who just makes comedies about man-children, full of references – a pastiche of Judd Apatow and Seth MacFarlane, perhaps. That he values references over character, structure and funny scenes and camera tricks over themes. There is, in fact, a film starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost that does qualify for that opprobrium (even lacking the camera tricks and superb structure): it’s Greg Mottola’s Paul. Even Hot Fuzz (arguably the closest Wright comes to deserving those criticisms, while it remains his most purely “fun” film) is a fascinating comment on conformity and mundanity, and ends on a marvelously ambiguous note with its heroes turned into nigh-fascistic supercops. But in both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz (less so in Scott Pilgrim), he is using these tropes and forms more to comment on a specific brand of British malaise and frustration than for their own sake – the characters, then, are sketched in quickly through these tropes and while they are made distinctive, they can come across as secondary to the form and structure of the piece.
The World’s End, though, is something else entirely. Less structurally tight and much less built on references (and the references are all used for a very specific thematic purpose), it is instead a character piece first and foremost – the portrait of a ruptured friendship that will come to terms with what it is, but never be fully restored. And it is in this relationship that Simon Pegg and Nick Frost give the best performances of their careers. Pegg deserves enormous credit for creating a protagonist who’s that loathsome and pathetic, that selfish (to the point of absolute solipsism) and yet finding something genuine and soulful in there which is, in its own peculiar way, quixotic, heroic, and tragic. It’s a bravura performance, completely demolishing any idolization of the “man-child protagonist” that one could imagine. But it’s Frost who ultimately walks away with the film – a man who’s built (what seems to be) a good life for himself and yet brims with frustration and regret, a towering anger just barely tolerating Gary. As thrilling as it is to see him, essentially, turn into the Hulk when the night turns against them, it’s even more involving to see that broken rage come into the open and turn on its real target: Gary King. The scenes between them in the last act are easily the most emotionally involving of the Cornetto Trilogy, and mark a new, more melancholy, and more mature phase in Wright’s career.
But that maturity and new emphasis on character shines throughout the whole film. Eddie Marsan’s Peter Page, in particular, is wonderfully sketched-in with an utterly heartbreaking speech on his encounter with an old childhood bully who fails to recognize him (and how this relationship comes back to haunt him in the third act ranges from frightening, to cathartic, to hilarious, to tragic), but look at the pleasure he takes in the smaller moments before the insanity kicks in. Or the hilarious moment when Considine’s Steven admits his feelings for Sam – it’s funny, but there’s such honesty in the moment that it becomes genuinely touching. These are grace notes which Wright, like a master composer, is incorporating into his symphony with a virtuoso’s talent.
And, undoubtedly, he is a virtuoso. The audacity of his sequence construction reaches astounding heights, particularly in the big bar brawl at the Beehive, which combines the thrill of seeing the Hulk set loose in last year’s Avengers with the balletic physical comedy of Buster Keaton. Wright, when unleashed, is an astoundingly kinetic director, but he reins himself in here, especially at the beginning, knowing that if he hits that note too often it’ll spoil the effect for when it really matters. And when he does unleash it, it lands like a thunderbolt. His use of the soundtrack is impressive as well – each song acts as a Greek chorus, building until it plays a crucial role in the climactic confrontation. And the technical aspects – from Bill Pope’s cinematography and Paul Machliss’s editing, to the visual and aural effects in the creation of the Blanks – are all impeccable.
The density of Wright’s writing continues to impress. It’s there on the surface, as he flaunts his skill at set-up with the names of the pubs and the opening speech explaining the high-school pub crawl, but it’s there on the rewatch too (in particular, there’s an amazingly dark joke implied by the running gag of “selective memory” regarding what people in the town actually thought about Gary). The way he sets up and builds things like “selective memory,” Gary’s skill at arguing, and so on is really impressive. The care and detail laid into these elements puts other filmmakers in his category to shame.
As mentioned, though, the structure isn’t as tight as some of his previous work. Some of the exposition on what’s going on in the town is handled a little roughly (and the two actors tasked with delivering this exposition pre-climax give the weakest performances in the film). But in this film, the “why this plot element” is so much less important than what it means – and, particularly, what it means for Gary – that the exposition feels almost irrelevant. Sure, there are sci-fi answers, but they hint towards the deeper emotional truths as well. You can’t go back to the past. You’re never as important as you think you are. You can’t just rebel against nothing and if you do these things, if you live life like this, you will only hurt those closest to you, sometimes very dearly indeed.
The enemy – as in the whole Cornetto Trilogy – is conformity, the “Starbuckization” of adulthood, the forcing of individuals into a society where everyone is the same. But even here, Wright shades with some intriguing ambiguity: note how the climax is staged as an intervention (symbolically, for all of humanity), and how Gary’s decision has dire consequences for the entire planet. The life Gary has lived, until now, is pure sound and fury, signifying nothing. Now he can no longer sustain the life he had chosen and found wanting. And Wright presents us with an open question: has he moved on? Has Gary King finally grown up and taken responsibility for something? Or is this just another phase of Gary King doing whatever the fuck he wants?
I think he has. Because, as noted elsewhere, that’s the truth about recovering from addiction and depression, isn’t it? Especially when it’s as bad as Gary’s (and, ultimately, as willfully self-destructive). When you have burned down the world and survived, you still have to live with that burned-down world. You need to find a new place in it, and decide what really matters to you. Note the name of the final pub, and what Gary orders. The world has just begun for Gary King. It’s up to him to live in it.