Ben Wheatley may well be the most interesting young director working in Britain today. Of his four feature films so far (Down Terrace, Kill List, Sightseers, and A Field in England) all of them feature interesting premises and original ideas. Whether he succeeds entirely is not always a certainty. The sheer utter confusion and intensity of Kill List ensures it is easily one of my favourite films of recent years, a jarring mix of brutal horror, surrealism and family drama, all drawn around an extremely strong idea – what happens when your job (in this case a soldier-turned-hitman) requires you to subsume your moral compass to a higher authority? – and it is this central idea which leads the film to becoming as horrifying as it does. Elsewhere, A Field in England is a fantastic acid trip of a film down a rabbit hole which may or may not be purgatory or hell but is certainly no less interesting for it.
Down Terrace was the film that preceded Kill List and was Wheatley’s first feature film. Unfortunately, it does bear many of the hallmarks of a ‘first feature film’ in that it does not feel entirely confident as a whole yet. It is merely an okay film. We spend our time with a family of gangsters in a council estate somewhere in one of the nowheresville towns across Britain. These aren’t however the types of gangsters we are used to seeing in cinema. They aren’t sharply-dressed, cultured Europeans. They aren’t hard-hitting geezers from the depths of London’s back streets. These are people who otherwise look entirely normal, in a British sense. That means they drink tea and lager, wear fairly bland forgettable jumpers and anoraks, and they fill their house with the sort of bric-a-brac that only Britons can find in car boot sales across the land. Frequently the film has been compared to by reviewers and critics as if Mike Leigh or Ken Loach directed a gangster film. That is certainly a very accurate description of it.
The problem is that, beyond this interesting premise, the film just isn’t particularly engrossing. It suffers from occasionally trying too hard from trying to be a unique take on something without creating interesting and affecting characters that we would care to watch. Of the three main characters; son Karl (Robin Hill), dad Bill (Robert Hill) and mum Maggie (Julia Deakin, or for an Alan Partridge fan like me, forever Jill, the woman who stole that afternoon from Alan), only Maggie feels like a potentially interesting character. The other two are given particular character traits or quirks, but they are not rounded off into complete characters.
Karl is stupid and frequently impulsive, a great big man-child who hasn’t grown up. Bill is stubborn and a bully, just as capable of throwing his toys out of the pram as his son, but between these basic character traits there is no more depth to these characters. Rifts occur between the two, which provides the film with the impetus for its final conflict, but this rift is ultimately just a plot point, it does not grow out of naturalistic behaviour on the part of the characters, which is what Down Terrace is aiming for. Maggie is immediately a much more interesting character, and sadly the one the film spends the least amount of time on. Frequently we see her doing some chores in the background while the boys argue or shout at each other or their mates over business. She sits in the background doing the gardening or making tea and listening. However, as the film goes on it becomes clearer and clearer that she is the brains behind the family, scheming and manipulating others at will.
The film as a whole is very claustrophobic. Down Terrace rarely leaves the house in which Bill, Karl and Maggie live and when it does it is usually because someone is being offed. Stylistically, the film accentuates the claustrophobia with plenty of jump cuts and very few medium or long shots, simply because there isn’t enough space in the house to back up far enough to get more than half a fellow’s body in shot. Unfortunately, with the relatively flat characters, it is difficult to want to spend too much time in close proximity with these people.
Ben Wheatley’s preference for shocking violence and moments of utterly grim and bleak black humour is all over Down Terrace, as it is for all his subsequent films. I raised some very physical gasps at times and some pretty solid chuckles. Unfortunately, these are only occasional moments in an otherwise patchy film. Wheatley has a lot of promise as a director, and it shows here with his ability to manage some potentially very difficult tonal shifts and his ability to bring the bleak humour to the forefront. He’s built on that promise since with his subsequent films (and his latest film High Rise, due this year, looks really interesting), but ultimately, Down Terrace is a patchy film with some great moments and a great premise amidst many rather dull scenes.