Monday, July 22, 2013

FI: Down Terrace

Down Terrace
UK, 2010
Directed by Ben Wheatley

To me, Ben Wheatley is one of the most interesting filmmakers to come along in ages. He marries a sense of macabre dark humor with visual acuity and a keen ear for natural speech. His violent, uneasy films bust the conventions of genre, blurring the lines between kitchen sink realism, crime, comedy, and horror. He also roots everything in a very British sense of tradition and history, such that the setting and culture become additional characters. His feature debut, Down Terrace, would appear on its surface to be your standard "geezers with guns" picture of the sort that self-styled East End bad-asses regularly churn out. But this film plays out more like a Mike Leigh social drama on crank, adopting the style of an intimate family drama to connect us with the characters in a way gangster films, with their ineffectual grandstanding and flash, rarely manage.

Wheatley co-wrote the script with Robin Hill, who stars here as Karl, the put-upon, emotionally-volatile son of Brighton gangster Bill (Robert Hill, his actual father). Both have recently gotten out of prison, convinced they were put there by an unknown informant among their close group of friends and criminal associates. As they settle back into their old, dysfunctional family dynamic, prodded on by Karl's icy, hard-as-nails mother Maggie (Spaced's Julia Deakin), they begin to react with greater suspicion and paranoia to each potential threat. But Karl, who is about to become a father himself, shows signs of wanting out of the lifestyle.

There are no heroes, here, no "good" people, only scoundrels painted various shades of black. Wheatley maintains a tense, yet oddly eerie mood throughout the film, aided by a liberal dash of shocking (and shockingly comical) violence. He employs hand-held cameras at close range, and lets scenes play out at length, never shying away from the ugliness and bile that bubble to the surface; nothing in this world is glamorized. Traditional British folk songs, which at first feel out of place, come to add a menacing sense of being grounded in the past. Eventually the whole thing spins out into a conclusion that I didn't see coming, but which, in retrospect, is the only way it could have ended. Ultimately, Down Terrace is a satisfyingly ugly, pitch black look at how the sins of one generation salt the earth for the next. It may not be a "great" film, but it portends great things to come from Ben Wheatley, and I can't wait to see where he goes next.

Note: Both Down Terrace and Wheatley's second feature, the edgy, hard to classify Kill List, are available to stream on Netflix in the US. I recommend both.

1 comment:

  1. I know Robin hill and His family, grew up with them in Down Terrace, still live there to this day. great film.