Down Terrace (Ben Wheatley, 2009)
Netflix, in their inimitable quest for complete inaccuracy, lists Down Terrace as a comedy. If you can see, say, The Homecoming as a comedy, maybe. (I was going to use Endgame, but there’s enough farce in there that it actually does work as a comedy.) I found it one of the bleakest movies I have seen so far this year, a movie so far removed from the comedy world that I’m not even sure they inhabit the same planet. This is a movie about, as another review of the film that I read recently put it so very well, “unlikable people doing unlikable things”; that is as good a summary as anything I could come up with.
While the film is essentially plotless, I’ll go with Netflix’s summary, since that is at least a subplot here, but with a whole lot of clarification. Bill and Karl (real-life father-and-son team, and Wheatley regulars, Robert and Robin Hill) are small-time gangsters, Bill a drug dealer and Karl a runner, who have just narrowly escaped a long prison sentence. Their mole in the home office, David Berman (The World’s End‘s Mark Kemper), tells them from the first time wee see him that somewhere in their organization is a mole who’s been telling the police all about their business, as well as providing the coppers with an extensive list of contacts. The movie takes place over the two weeks after the charges have been dismissed. Ostensibly, it is about Bill, Karl, and Bill’s wife Maggie (Shaun of the Dead‘s Julia Deakin) shaking down their friends and acquaintances in order to find out who the informant is, but so little screen time is spent on the actual mystery of the informant’s identity that it is, in essence, a subplot at best. There’s also a great deal of stuff about Karl and his girlfriend Valda (Kerry Peacock in her only screen appearance to date), pregnant with Karl’s child (or is it? Bill is unconvinced throughout the film), who is trying to convince Karl to ditch the criminal life and go straight; Maggie’s brother Eric (Mr. Nobody‘s David Schaal), the organization’s enforcer; Bill’s obsession with the blues, and his weekly musical get-togethers; Pringle (Kill List‘s Michael Smiley), an outside wet-work contractor; and a number of other threads, including the entire clan’s taste for getting high on their own supply (while the drug in question is never identified—Eric calls it “double bubble” in an early scene—the most believable speculation I’ve seen on IMDB is that the entire gang are hooked on Solpadol, which for those of you reading this in America is the British equivalent of Tylenol with codeine).
The good parts about the movie are (a) Wheatley and Hill (Robin, not Robert)’s script, with its strong emphasis on well-drawn and believable characters in almost entirely unrealistic situations and (b) playing spot-the-theme-that-cropped-up-again-in-Kill List. (As if (a) didn’t already have you doing so.) Not only is it not a comedy, but after reading that attempt at a synopsis, you might think this is a gangster film in the longstanding British gangster film tradition; not at all, except if you turn your head and squint just right. This is a slice-of-life film that happens to include unsavory characters who occasionally do very violent things. But this is a movie far more interested in the dynamics of this family than it is with the organization to which they all belong. The bad thing about the movie is that almost by definition, any attempt to summarize the movie either by pigeonholing it into a genre or attempting to summarize it in a sentence or two is inevitably going to be a great letdown for people who take those genres and synopses on faith; you are guaranteed to get something very different than you actually got. (Kill List had this same problem, but there it very much felt like subterfuge on Wheatley’s part, whereas here it feels far more like Netflix incompetence. (To be fair, every other site on which I’ve seen a synopsis—IMDB, Rotten Tomatoes, Mubi, etc.—all suffer the same attempt to summarize, and I probably shouldn’t be picking specifically on Netflix for this one.) It also, by focusing so obsessively on characters that it almost ignores plot, decides to be a little lax about tying up some of (okay, all of) its loose ends; the viewer will have far more questions after the final frame than after the first ten minutes. This is not always a bad thing, but they’re not the kind of questions that are going to get you over to the pub afterwards involved in impassioned discussion until closing time, they’re more “okay, that scene ended up being irrelevant, let’s not follow it up.” So all that said—if you liked Kill List (I still haven’t seen Wheatley’s other two extant films as of this writing, though I will have seen both by next Sunday morning), it’s worth going back and checking this one out to see where Wheatley came from. But watch that one first. ** ½