With My Brother the Devil, writer-director Sally El Hosaini tells a story both operatic in its implications and quotidian in its sensory, day-to-day details. Sons of an Egyptian-born bus driver, Mo (Fady Elsayed) and Rashid (James Floyd) live in the council flats (projects) of London’s East End; Rashid is a drug dealer, while 18-year-old Mo is a blank slate. Discouraging his younger brother from getting into the business, Rashid posits his thug lifestyle as the only viable alternative to an education system (still class-based) that’s failed him. If Mo studies harder, the unspoken family rationale goes, he’ll be able to avoid Rashid’s mistakes, but the older brother also doesn’t mind introducing Mo to his friends or sending him on a quickie drug run. Things, perhaps inevitably, go awry.
First Mo is bullied by a pint-sized member of a rival gang who makes off with both his “food” (slang for weed) and his crisp white basketball sneakers. And after members from the same opposing crew murder Izzi (Anthony Welsh), a West Indian gang member and Rashid’s best friend, he gets a gun on the black market and seeks vengeance—but seeing a too-young antagonist in (literally) his brother’s shoes is what prevents him from pulling the trigger. Rashid is clearly way over his head, and the stone-faced Floyd is more than game at portraying the contorted ethics of a hoodrat who can’t shake a flood of inevitable second thoughts.
Jumping at an opportunity to “go straight,” Rashid becomes the assistant to another Egyptian, a photographer named Sayyid (Saïd Taghmaoui) with both street cred and a cosmopolitan swagger. As the two become closer friends, Mo is disgusted with his older brother—and his parents’ approval. Rashid’s withdrawal from criminal circles and grappling with civilian life could have warranted its own screenplay. Instead, the parallel arc of Mo’s entrance into the gang (named Drugs-Money-Guns, or DMG) makes this an ill-advised study in screenwriting juxtapositions. Sayyid reveals himself as gay, and after an inevitably hostile response, Rashid falls deeply (and promptly) in love with him—the final nail in the coffin of his relationship with Mo. Unable to tell neighbors or other DMG members that Rashid is “a homo,” he instead tells them his brother is mixed up in “terrorist shit”—a tidy contrivance that perfectly delineates the way people can exacerbate their own biases without realizing it.
Despite drawing on a wealth of tropes both old (the wrong-side-of-the-tracks relationships that dominated Warner Bros. gangster dramas from the ’30s) and new (the implication that the most macho dude in the room is, deep down, a sensitive and misunderstood homosexual), El Hosaini’s film works. Wisely shot on location with a camera that seems willing to go anywhere, My Brother the Devil has a confidence in its details—both of dialogue and of the uneasy camaraderie between its criminals—that gives it more core honesty than its (ultimately silly) plotline deserves. The film has two climaxes, one bombastic and coincidence-ridden, the second much harder to parse, an open-ender that leaves all potential for growth on Mo’s shoulders, rerouting the emotional arc of the audience back to a place of just-lost innocence.