Ben Wheatley’s third feature film, Sightseers, hit UK cinemas November 2012 on the back of a wave of critical acclaim, including hugely positive reactions at that year’s Cannes Film Festival. Trading on an effortless blend of brutal violence and razor-sharp wit, Sightseers demonstrates Wheatley’s expert skill at juggling genres. His debut feature, Down Terrace, was crucial in announcing the director as a vital new talent in British cinema, and in many ways offers a similar duality in its tone and execution.
Down Terrace could be superficially described as a ˜British gangster film’, focusing as it does on the lives and struggles of a small British family running a successful crime syndicate. The central plot follows father Bill (Robert Hill) and his son, Karl (Robin Hill), who, having just been released from prison, begin the messy business of tracking down a rat in their organisation.
So far, so generic, you may be tempted to think. But Down Terrace is anything but. Despite the promotional materials for the film invoking guns, geezers and gangsters, it actually feels a huge injustice to hang around the neck of this film such a bloated and weighty albatross as the ˜British Gangster Film’ label. This is instead a slow-moving, intensely studied character portrait, gradually unveiling a deeply dysfunctional family. The prevalent drug use and occasional flashes of violence aren’t here to paint any grand tale of organised crime, mob hits and so on, and in fact become secondary to the gripping character drama on show.
This is apparent from the start, as the setting is quickly revealed not as grimy East London or the like, but a quiet terraced street in Brighton. As Bill and Karl return home, they are welcomed by friends, associates and well-wishers, before quickly settling into the mundanity of domestic life. Soon it’s all cups of teas, cans from the offie, dinner on the table at 7. Allegiances and plots are discussed as though they were the minutae of any family’s day to day lives; even the local hitman brings his toddler with him, the child playing at the bottom of the stairs as daddy nips past to grab a 10-inch carving knife. As the tensions within the family explode towards the end of the film, Wheatley is able to use sudden, brutal bursts of violence not to titillate or sensationalize but to offer moments of intense dramatic cartharsis for the characters involved.
Wheatley’s directorial approach to the story is to hone in on the characters, with the action rarely leaving the family’s small terraced house. With developments focussing heavily on son Karl and the suffocating, passive-aggressive control of his parents, the house becomes an environment of gnawing, claustrophobic unease. Family arguments are played out nose to nose, nobody able to retreat any further than the next room. The effect is one heavily indebted to theatre, with the tight surroundings and judicious use of close-ups serving to magnify the impressive performances of the cast.
The cast step up to the challenge admirably, to the extent that this often feels like Mike Leigh doing Lock, Stock. In the lead role of Karl, Robin Hill (co-writer, with Wheatley) gives us a portrayal of a troubled only child, heart-breakingly vulnerable and emotionally repressed. In one early scene, Karl works himself into a hysterical temper while looking for a misplaced box of letters, only to amusingly revert back to perfect calmness the very instant he finds them. Hill embeds his performance with a hurt and rage barely disguised beneath the surface, Karl’s attempts to flex his own personality constantly blocked by the immovable force that is his father. Dad Bill is here played by Robert Hill, real-life father of Robin. By no means a professional actor, his performance is indeed stunted and slightly bland at times. Yet the overall effect is actually one which works within the context of the role. Bill is a cold-hearted father, willing to lie to and manipulate his son for the benefit of the family business. Robert Hill does well to create such a strong sense of a dismissive, uncaring relationship. When he looks at his son, he seems to almost look straight through him.
But perhaps the most striking performance is that of Julia Deakin, playing Maggie, the matriarch of the family. Deakin almost dares you at first glance to view Maggie as an archetypal movie housewife: quiet, long-suffering, doomed to keep her nose out of business affairs, doing little else but make the tea for the men of the house. But nothing could be further from the truth, as she soon reveals herself to be a ruthless part of the organisation, even involving herself in one or two ˜hits’. At times seeming utterly emotionless, Deakin gives us a mother dealing almost exclusively in passive-aggressive put-downs, her only glimpses of maternal instinct seeming like just another tool with which to control her son. One memorable scene sees her reduce Karl to tears by talking about his weakness as a baby, before gently putting her distraught son to sleep with a childhood nursery rhyme.
Family and tradition form a central theme, becoming the shackles binding Karl to his life of misery. The film is frequently interrupted by musical interludes as Bill, guitar in hand, plays various old folk songs and shanties with his musician friends. The sense of tradition and permanence embodied by this music becomes an inescapable soundtrack to Karl’s gradual breakdown, reverberating throughout the house and constantly reminding him of the roots tying him down. The warmth of such music sits perfectly at odds with the brutality slowly creeping into the family’s actions, and such juxtaposition in tone becomes a core aspect of the film.
At times Down Terrace does threaten to become a little unbalanced in tone, such is the readiness with which it flips between hard-hitting emotional drama, wry humour and shocking violence. One scene sees a would-be victim of a hit barricade lock himself in the family’s bathroom, as father, son and hitman stand outside, arguing in full earshot about how to manage this farcical situation. The whole sequence feels played for laughs, yet, when this victim eventually meets his end, it is played out with such sudden and unexpected brutality that one can hardly recall the comedic nature of the preceding events. On the whole, Wheatley’s direction and script succeed in this balancing act, although the film’s penchant for moments of black comedy do start to feel somewhat jarring towards the final act. This is particularly evident in the film’s shocking climax, which certainly left this reviewer unsure of how to react.
Ultimately, however, Down Terrace is a refreshing spin on a tired, haggered genre, aided by a strong script, focused direction from Wheatley, and a number of fine performances from the cast. The film deftly repositions the crime thriller as kitchen-sink drama, and in doing so prevents the onset of the same usual genre tropes of gratuitous violence committed by ˜propah geezers’ and thick-necked hardmen. Instead, we are treated to a tight, intense character study, speckled with a humour that often stings with the knowledge that tragedy lurks ominously around the corner. While Down Terrace may lack the visual flair or sparkling wit of Sightseers, it is no less a testament to the considerable talent of one of the UK’s most promising young directors.