Bluff is a stellar independent drama with a keen focus on different facets of the war on drugs. There are plenty of films that tackle the subject, of course, and although writer-director Sheikh Shahnawaz doesn’t necessarily break new topical ground, he manages to tell a damn good story filled with empathy and character.
Danny Miller (Gurj Gill) is a detective assigned to go undercover as a heroin addict to suss out information on local dealer Imran (Nisaro Karim), whose small-town heroin and cocaine network is on the upswing. Miller has a tragic history with drugs and initially believes he can do some good. Along the way, he befriends Cooks (Jason Adam), an actual addict. The two connect with Imran and start dealing. Cooks starts out as a useful pathway into the business, but Miller quickly comes to love and respect his friend.
That’s the first plot. The second takes place later in the future, after Miller has established himself further with Imran … and Cooks is nowhere to be seen. At this stage in his assignment, Miller no longer dresses like a junkie on the street. He wears a nice suit, his hair pulled back and his attitude that of a man who knows exactly where he’s supposed to be.
It takes some time before the two stories start to truly converge, and the reveal of what happened to Cooks informs both stories, first as a specter and later as a motivation leading into the final act of the story.
Maybe it sounds strange to say it, but Bluff feels better than it has any right to be. Crime stories are incredibly common because they’re fairly easy to produce and create an inherent moral dimension to either embrace or subvert. The West’s war on drugs is a decades-old failure that has wrought more pain than benefit. There’s little action in Bluff, and its plot hits a lot of familiar beats, right down to the late-game moment when Danny’s superior pulls him off the mission when Imran is finally in his grasp. Somehow, though, nothing in the film feels like something that’s been done before.
A major key to the film’s success is Gill’s performance as Danny. He’s a man haunted by demons, some of which aren’t fully revealed until the final moments. His arc is going from belief in the system to total disillusionment. Thanks to Gill, it’s a believable descent. His friendship with Cooks feels natural despite their differences and his frustration with his friend’s bad habits. So, too, is his tension with Imran. He never respects Imran, but they’re more similar than he imagined when he took the assignment. Fortunately, there’s no instance where either of them actually vocalize this. Their synchronicity is due to converging histories, and the details of their lives reflect Shahnawaz’s larger message about the reason drug abuse won’t just be enforced away. The whole cast is great, but Gill is a standout.
Of course, the foundation of the film is Shahnawaz’s script and direction, both of which give the film a gritty feel without ever lapsing into thoughtless self-parody. It’s a real pitfall with this genre, but where many fail, Shahnawaz succeeds. The bifurcated structure of the story feels balanced, and the heavily dialogue-based script never drags. Other films attempt action as a way of keeping the blood pressure up, but the characters keep things moving in Bluff, to the filmmaker’s credit. No part of the story feels like a PSA about drug use, and the ending — which could feel melodramatic — instead feels deeply earned and incredibly sad.