The newest crime thriller to be added to a streaming platform is Culprits. Directed by J Blakeson, known for his work on the action-packed and morally ambiguous film I Care a Lot in 2020. This show is already being praised for its slick and stylized visuals, fast-paced plot, and talented cast. However, amidst all the glossy appeal, it also incorporates thought-provoking elements of horror that add depth to the story.
The focus of the story shifts between three different timelines: BEFORE (leading up to the heist), THEN (during the heist), and NOW. Each timeline is represented by yellow capital letters on the screen. In the past, a group of highly skilled criminals has been recruited by the ruthless villain Gemma Arterton, known as Dianne Harewood. Their task is to work together and break into a seemingly impenetrable vault to steal £30m. They will be generously rewarded for their roles in the heist, but they must also vanish without a trace once it is complete, leaving their previous lives behind.
According to Dianne, they will be taking from wealthy individuals who have kept their money hidden. The concept of culprits is not realistic, and in this case, it seems quite unbelievable – wealthy corporate figures are not needing to conceal much under the current British government.
The members of the gang have nicknames that reflect their roles, reminiscent of a noir film: Brain, Soldier, Driver, and Right Hand, to name a few. It’s a complex operation. Our point of entry is Muscle, portrayed by Nathan Stewart-Jarrett from Misfits. Currently, he is a stepfather living a peaceful life with his partner, attempting to establish a bistro in a dilapidated area in Oregon. However, a hit-and-run incident late at night sets off a series of events that intersect with his former life and bring back haunting memories from the past.
It turns out that a mysterious professional killer is hunting down the gang members and picking them off. It is a curious and clever choice to situate the main heist in the past. From very early on, we know that Muscle has an enormous bag of banknotes, which implies that they pulled off the job. But Culprits is slow to reveal what went down that day; the consequences become clear incrementally.
Reuniting the former group, as is often the case in heist stories, becomes even more tense as they uncover the identity of their potential assassin. This creates a growing sense of distrust. Is the culprit an outsider? Could it be those they stole from? Or perhaps one of their own? Loyalty among criminals is not guaranteed in this scenario.
The vivid lack of morality in this world is depicted with vibrant, eye-catching colors. In certain aspects, it possesses the boldness of a graphic novel. It showcases blueprints and large safes with a steampunk aesthetic. There are expertly choreographed conflicts and exciting action sequences and pursuits. The story takes us from the United States to England, Norway, France, and Spain. It exudes a sense of grandeur and self-assurance. The ensemble of actors is exceptional, including Arterton (who seems to be channeling a mix of St Vincent and Judi Dench’s M), Kirby Howell-Baptiste as the smooth-tongued con artist Officer, and Niamh Algar as the trigger-happy assassin known among her colleagues as Psycho.
Stewart-Jarrett expertly portrays the characters of Muscle, Joe, and David, seamlessly transitioning between their different lives. Being a black man in the United States, his interactions with authority figures, such as suspicious police officers and a board of officials reviewing his restaurant proposals, carry an added sense of threat and watchfulness. When Muscle clashes with a wealthy white man who considers himself the town’s villain, this sentiment is explicitly stated – “The law doesn’t see you, it only protects you” – but it holds even more weight when left unsaid, adding another level of unease to the looming danger.
In other places, subtlety is thrown out the window. This show is full of violence. It exists in the same gruesome world as Luther, attempting to justify its extreme bloodlust by portraying it as cartoonish. Characters casually carry machine guns on the streets of London as if they are a minor hindrance to those passing by, while some of the disturbing torture scenes may be too much for even a strong stomach to handle.
However, in a time filled with heist movies, Culprits stands out as a quality one: intelligent, thrilling, and extremely polished.