‘Bait’ and The Economics of Manhood
This story is part of my weekly “Have you seen …” series where I highlight movies that I think are under-appreciated, misunderstood, or simply worth talking about. New entries are published every Wednesday. NOTICE: Spoilers follow.
Oh, where to start with a movie like Bait. I suppose I can start anywhere, considering how you almost certainly have not seen the film. I myself could not find a way to *legally* access the film in the United States, but don’t let that deter you — this is very much a movie worth getting prosecuted over.
Bait is directed by Mark Jenkin, a director so ~outsider~ that Wikipedia isn’t actually sure whether he’s 43 or 44 years old. At any rate, he’s created a film that displays a wisdom well beyond those years, a wisdom clearly drawn from the sense of lineage and place so important to the movie itself.
Bait follows brothers Martin (Edward Rowe) and Steven Ward (Giles King), two of the final few original residents of a Cornish fishing village that has been quickly occupied by wealthy holidaygoers from other parts of the country. In Biblical fashion, Steven has acquiesced to the influx of outsiders by converting his fishing boat to coastal cruises while Martin attempts to keep the spirit of his upbringing alive by continuing to trap fish along the beach, driving an emotional wedge between the two that grows even deeper when Steven’s son Neil (Isaac Woodvine) decides that he’d rather follow in his uncle’s footsteps than those of his father.
The film’s plot and writing are rock-solid, but they are hardly Bait’s biggest selling points. Jenkin shot the film entirely on black-and-white 16mm film, which produces an tonal effect almost indescribable in its power. In the first few minutes, it’s difficult to convince yourself that you’re not watching a low-budget ethnographic short from the 1960s, but as the story comes into focus, Jenkin’s inimitable style begins to take a shape all its own.
Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep feels like a potential point of reference here, with steady directorial hands capturing slices of life that end up speaking much louder than the synopses let on in both films. Existing writing about of Bait would have you believe the movie is about gentrification — which it very much is, but only insofar as it represents an external force through which the internal may be revealed.
A rarely-discussed aspect of gentrification is the manner in which it can be a fundamentally emasculating process: to have one’s town, land, culture, heritage, and economic stability taken by ostensibly gentle, well-meaning outsiders is to have the very foundation of one’s manhood threatened. Martin is palpably held by this tension, quickly resorting to acts of physical intimidation when cornered by the Leighs, a wealthy family who’ve bought the old Ward family home and converted it into a kind of Airbnb.
The Leighs embody a soft-spoken, moderate self-righteousness that grates achingly against Martin’s hulking quest for meaning and security in his town. The matter-of-factness with which they inform Martin that, yes, he did indeed sell them his house and, no, he can no longer park outside of it is a type of violence on whose the burly Martin does not want to contend.
In particularly heightened moments, Jenkin will often make quick cuts to other shots in the film, producing a subtle network of interconnected moments and emotions. In many ways, this technique embodies so much of what makes Bait exceptional: it subtly shows how deeply intertwined all of these struggles are.
Late in the film, The Leigh’s children accidentally kill the young Ward after the son, Hugo (Jowan Jacobs), is enraged at the sight of seeing his sister, Katie (Georgia Ellery), sleeping with Neil. The aftermath of this incident is fractured — it’s impossible to know exactly how much time passes — but eventually Steven breaks into his old family home and can only bemoan the fact that they’ve taken out his mother’s pantry.
Never mind that its occupants have killed his only son: it’s the pantry he’s worried about. What Jenkin shows us, though, is that these are two branches of the same tree: people like the Leighs have come from outside and begun to dictate how men like Steven should make their money and live their lives. A scrapped pantry and a dead son are two vastly different symptoms of a common disease.
The final image the film leaves us with is Steven, Martin, and Wenna (Chloe Endean), a local waitress, going out to fish on Steven’s boat, which he’s repurposed for fishing. In other movies, this would be sweetened condensed milk — a nice way to end a tough story. Here, so much feels uncertain: the Wards’ relationship, Martin’s state of mind, the very economic reality of what they’re doing. The one sure thing, however, is the sense of community: three souls returning to the practice that made them to begin with, outsiders be damned. It speaks to a certain, oft-ignored type independence that only be achieved through others.
Most films today emasculate their characters with the same methods artists have been using for millennia: brutal fights, uninterested women, and other niceties of a bygone age of writing. Despite its antiquated look, Bait brings things right up to the present by doing away with these clichés and showing the importance of economic autonomy in traditional concepts of manhood. Don’t let the sleepy, seaside setting fool you — Steven and Martin’s struggle for independence and mutual recognition is as thematically and emotionally epic as you can see onscreen. His CV may show that he already has a years-long career behind him, but anyone who sees this film knows that Mark Jenkin is just now hitting his stride.