The Debt Collector

UK 1999

Reviewed by Richard Kelly


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Edinburgh, 1979: loan shark Nickie Dryden is arrested for murder by undercover policeman Gary Keltie. 1997: Dryden, now an acclaimed writer and sculptor, opens an exhibition of his work, accompanied by his journalist wife Val. Keltie disrupts the event, reminding the guests of Dryden's violent past. Keltie is suspended and confronts Val at her and Dryden's home with taunts about Dryden's earlier criminal "policy" to attack the friends and relatives of defaulting debtors.

Young thug Flipper seeks to emulate Dryden's former notoriety. He tries to befriend Dryden at the art gallery, but is rebuffed as Dryden's stepson Scott arrives. At the wedding of Val's sister, Keltie arrives and provokes a punch-up. Days later, Scott is found murdered. Keltie's partner Colquhoun tips Keltie off that Keltie is a suspect. Dryden believes likewise and hires Macrieff, an old accomplice, to have Keltie assaulted. Macrieff hires Flipper, who employs "the policy" by assaulting Keltie's mother Lana. Flipper tracks down Dryden to boast of his feat and a furious Dryden kicks him to death. Needing an alibi, Dryden takes a VIP seat at the Military Tattoo. Keltie seeks out Dryden at his home, finds only Val, and rapes her. He confronts Dryden outside the Tattoo, and they fight with knives. Months later, Dryden is acquitted of Keltie's murder, but is now estranged from Val. The recovering Lana is driven to a rest home by Colquhoun.


Who'd be a nancy-boy in Glasgow? There can't be many cities where machismo is quite such a source of harrowing myth and lore. The Debt Collector's production notes don't concede the point, but somewhere at the nub of this fiction is the real-life figure of reformed Glaswegian hardman Jimmy Boyle. Locked up at the age of 23, Boyle was a beneficiary of the now-disbanded Special Unit at HMP Barlinnie, and emerged over time as a respected writer and sculptor. Here, Billy Connolly's Nickie Dryden traces a similar career arc. (True, the film is set in Edinburgh, but Glasgow is its location-double in certain sequences, as per the stipulation of the Glasgow Film Fund.)

"Culture's worth a little risk." Such was the defence offered by Norman Mailer when espousing the literary talent of ex-convict Jack Abbott - and this while Abbott again stood trial, in 1981, for stabbing and killing a waiter only days after his release. But Mailer's assertion still invokes an important moral crux, one which is also at the core of this directorial debut by playwright Anthony Neilson. The Debt Collector ponders the odds that are stacked against the rehabilitation of violent criminals and suggests that the needful entwining of our lives within society means such offenders never stop paying for past sins. Trouble is, one just can't believe that Neilson gave this debate much more than ten minutes' thought before sitting down to pen this grisly, suspense-free shocker.

Certainly, Nickie Dryden is a character upon whom you'd wish all the harm in the world. Meaning no disrespect to Adam Butcher, who's credited with the execution of Dryden's sculptures, the art on display here is of no obvious distinction: several knobbly clay busts, a slow-rotting fish, a pointless steel derrick. But we see Dryden being interviewed onstage at some ICA-type talking shop, extolling the "killer instinct" he has carried over into art-making from his erstwhile employment. So here in plain sight is that 90s figure, the high-priced celebrity artist, making a killing. Since this film is not on the side of the redemptive angels, we wait patiently for Connolly to lose his head once more. Sure enough, he kicks his young acolyte Flipper to death in convincingly crunchy fashion.

Initially, Ken Stott's angry copper Keltie seems set on some righteous Presbyterian crusade, but then everything in Neilson's writing conspires to unhinge him. He looks dogged and edgy, a bit too quick with a blade; he snarls "fuck" and "cunt". At a moment of high tension, he accuses Dryden of "betraying his country and his class". But having credited Keltie with this admirable sense of solidarity, Neilson wastes no time in debiting him as a class traitor for coveting the fine bones of Dryden's posh wife Val.

As Val, the female cipher in the middle of this male duel, the fragrant Francesca Annis has a terrible old time of it. When her conscience finally flinches at her husband's misdeeds, she sits down to compose a column entitled, "How We Forgive", and the shade of the fictional Guardian columnist 'Bel Littlejohn' flits across the screen. At least Annis has one good scene, in which she weeps for her dead son while slumped on the toilet. Clearly, Val imagines the worst has finally happened. If only. The sole quirk of her character is that she has authored a study of the Glaswegian serial killer Bible John. Keltie sourly suggests she's aroused by violent men and tests his theory by raping her, a dramatic stroke presumably calculated to raze whatever moral high ground Cop might hold over Criminal.

Today, when the adjectives "dark" and "psychological" modify "thriller" they are intended to denote a higher purpose. What they actually denote is that a series of stabbings will be performed, a fetid air of sexual frustration will pervade, and a 'flawed' servant of the law will pronounce solemnly upon the evil that men do. Neilson has done time on Cracker, so we might have guessed how this cake would get baked. His direction is characterised by a tendency for jarring emphasis. Adrian Johnston's score follows suit and soars way over the top.


Graham Broadbent
Damian Jones
Anthony Neilson
Director of Photography
Dick Pope
John Wilson
Production Designer
Mark Geraghty
Adrian Johnston
©Film Four Limited
Production Companies
Film Four presents in association with The Glasgow Film Fund a Dragon Pictures production
Line Producer
Liz Bunton
Production Co-ordinator
Ruta Ozols
Production Manager
2nd Unit:
Brian Kaczynski
Location Manager
Robert How
Post-production Supervisor
Alistair Hopkins
Assistant Directors
Mary Soan
Josh Robertson
Michael Queen
Mark Murdoch
Script Supervisor
Margaret Graham
Jina Jay
Glasgow Additional:
Julie Austin
2nd Unit Director of Photography
Jan Pester
Camera Operator
Lewis Foster
Steadicam Operator
Alistair Rae
Special Effects
Computer Film Company
Art Director
Ken Wheatley
Dryden's Sculptures
Adam Butcher
Costume Designer
Trisha Biggar
Wardrobe Supervisor
Eleanor Baker
Make-up Designer
Caroline Noble
Title Design
General Screen Enterprises
Music Score Performers
Munich Symphony Orchestra
Terry Davies
Ceilidh Music Performers
The Bobby Harvey Band:
Bobby Harvey
Scott Harvey
Ivor Britton
Jim Muir
Tom McWilliam
Music Supervisor
Steve Lindsey
Orchestral Co-ordinator
Paul Talkington
Peter Fuchs
"Showdown" by Philip Lynott, performed by Thin Lizzy; "Life in Mono (Sweatband Mix)" by John Barry, Martin Virgo, performed by Mono; "Presto" by Ludwig van Beethoven; "Bittersweet" by/performed by Lewis Taylor; "Cained" by/arranged by S. Blood, I. Gotts, performed by Wide Receiver; "Maire's Wedding" & medley: "Orange and Blue", "Diamond Stockings", "Dancing in Islay", "Calum Beag" (trad), arranged by Bobby Harvey, performed by The Bobby Harvey Band; "Scotland the Brave" (trad), arranged by Dougie Pincock; "Longeuval" by Pipe Major George Stoddart, performed by The Massed Pipes and Drums 1998; "The Green Hills of Tyrol" by Sandy Davidson; "Amazing Grace" (trad), solo piper: Captain John MacLellan; "Mist Covered Mountains of Home" (trad), arranged by Major Gavin Stoddart, performed by The Lone Piper; "A Good Man" by/performed by Adrian Johnston & Anthony Neilson
Sound Recordist
Colin Nicolson
Re-recording Mixers
Aad Wirtz
John Falcini
Steve Parr
Supervising Sound Editor
Zane Hayward
Dialogue Editor
Stewart Henderson
Jason Swanscott
Diane Greaves
Anthony Faust
Stunt Co-ordinator
Lee Sheward
Billy Connolly
Nickie Dryden
Ken Stott
Gary Keltie
Francesca Annis
Val Dryden
Iain Robertson
Annette Crosbie
Alastair Galbraith
Shauna MacDonald
Sandy Neilson
Julie Wilson-Nimmo
young girl
Alan Francis
young man
James Thomson
Steven Duguid
Matt Costello
Stuart Blyth
Gordon Orr
Jenny Foulds
Neil McKinven
radio interviewer
Andrew Neil
Ford Kiernan
Ronnie Ancona
Jimmy Logan
Una McLean
Dawn Steele
Deirdre Davis
Debbie Murray
Tattoo staff member
Phil McKee
Tattoo official
Andrew Barr
Robbie Smith-Dempsey
policeman in court
Julia Currie
nurse in rest home
Film Four Distributors
9,877 feet
109 minutes 45 seconds
Dolby digital
Colour by
DeLuxe, London
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011