Director Ben Wheatley’s been getting an awful lot of attention lately. With all the good buzz surrounding his latest movie Kill List, which came out in limited release this month, and the slate of upcoming films he’s attached to, the director is on the verge of becoming a household name in the world of indie genre flicks.
So there’s no time like the present to get acquainted with the movie that first got Wheatley noticed (albeit only by critics and festival audiences): Down Terrace, his 2010 debut about a dysfunctional crime family.
Down Terrace is what you might get if you took the dark humor and trigger-happiness of a Guy Ritchie movie, then added the discomforting, de-glamorized feel of Terrence Malick’s Badlands, had This is England’s Shane Meadows write the script and Lynn Shelton (Humpday) direct the result.
It’s basically a surprisingly funny mumblecore movie with a focus on guns and murders instead of self-indulgent whining and indie-pop music. The film feels real without ever feeling boring, or sacrificing the hardness of the story for mushy feelings.
The family at the heart of Down Terrace doesn’t solve problems with rational discussion so much as with a bullet to the brain or a knife in the back. This rotten clan of criminals consists of father-and son team Bill and Karl, and mom Maggie, who may well be the reincarnation of Lady Macbeth. Their little underworld operation is rounded out by Maggie’s brother Eric, family friend Garvey, and psychotic-yet-inept hit man Pringle.
Upon Bill and Karl’s release from jail, the pair plan revenge on the person who ratted them out to the cops. Karl starts to re-examine his priorities when he’s confronted by an ex-girlfriend who claims to be carrying his child—a revelation that doesn’t sit well with Bill and Maggie. As suspicions abound, tempers flare and the body count rises faster than a soufflé.
Down Terrace isn’t a movie for everyone. On this very site, in fact, George Hickman let it be known that he wasn’t a huge fan with his ‘minor rock fist up’ review. The movie can be a little hard to follow at the start, and the characters’ easy attitudes toward murder are so shocking that you’ll either find them disturbing or hilarious (or perhaps even a bit of both). That’s a total turnoff for lots of people, and understandably so.
But this film got me laughing out loud more than a few times. And it was the cavalier attitude toward violence and killing that did it. In every other respect, the characters of Down Terrace seem like pretty normal people. They argue. They garden. They play guitar in the living room. So when the talk turns to business, and Bill, Karl and Maggie start speaking in phrases that sound like they came from The Long Good Friday, it all starts to feel a bit absurd.
Wheatley also shoots killing scenes without any of the artifice you’d see in most crime movies, because for these people, murder isn’t about making a statement. It’s an errand, like going to the grocery store.
While that concept is chilling, what’s funny about the way it’s done here is that while the “kill first and ask questions later” approach is always the go-to strategy, it never works. One murder leads to another and another, all of which are done so messily that you’re sure the killers will never get away with it. But Bill, Karl and Maggie have such skewed visions of themselves as calculating criminals that their attitudes never change.
It’s a unique twist on a common theme in crime movies: that crime isn’t worth the risk. Here, Wheatley’s showing us how someone like The Long Good Friday’s Harold Shand or Sexy Beast’s Don Logan would look in real life, and how ridiculous and unfeasible their way of doing things would actually be.
The message of Down Terrace is that a real-life crime family probably wouldn’t be all that different from yours or mine. They’d just be meaner and dumber. That bluntly true statement, taken to its furthest possible degree, is what makes the movie so funny, and Ben Wheatley a unique director, whose career is worth following.