Where Forgotten Films Dwell

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Monday, June 21, 2010

LA Film Festival Review #2: Down Terrace

Down Terrace
Directed by Ben Wheatley
Rating: 31/2 out of 4 stars

Shortly before the start of our screening of Down Terrace, director Ben Wheatley walked up to the podium in our theater and introduced his film. “This is a film about miserable people doing miserable things to each other,” he dryly informed us. It doesn’t help that practically all of the characters are teetering on the brink of a chasm made of desperation and ennui. For when these characters are left to their own devices, they have time to think. When they have time to think, people start dying. But don’t assume that Down Terrace is a kind of action packed criminal thriller.

Imagine, if you can, if Mike Leigh directed a British episode of the Sopranos written by the Coen Brothers. This is probably the closest that one can get to explaining the essence of Down Terrace and its power. It is essentially a kitchen sink drama about a beleaguered family. It just so happens that they are all hardened criminals. The film begins with a young man named Karl (Robin Hill) and his older father Bill (Robert Hill) being released from prison. They arrive at their house where they are met by some of their close friends like Garvey, who owns a local club, Chris Pringle, a man who obviously has retired from some form of British special military forces to raise his son, and their Uncle Eric who we immediately feel shouldn’t be trusted. They drink, have cake, sing songs, and trade some good natured ribbing. But this is all a ruse. Karl and Bill know that somebody ratted them out, landing them in prison. They have every reason to believe that one of the men sharing their cake and tea is the snitch. It is just a matter of figuring out who…

Unlike many other films about criminal families, the first hour is spent developing the social dynamics of the various family members. Bill, a disillusioned ex-hippie, is a cynical old man who is content to slip into obscurity while passive aggressively destroying those around him. Karl is a clearly disturbed man-child who is prone to angry and irrational fits and resents the power that Bill seems to wield over his life. And then there is Maggie, Bill’s wife. God bless her, for she seems so defeated by life that when Bill and Karl break into fights, she ignores them and continues on with her housework. She loves Bill and longs for the good old days when it was just the two of them, but life has taken its toll. She, like the rest of the family, seems to be slipping into a state of lethargy.

But this changes when Karl’s girlfriend Valda appears at their doorstep with her belly poking precariously outward. This serves as the catalyst for the entire film. Bill and Maggie are not convinced that it is Karl’s and try to talk him into “getting rid of her before he gets too attached.” But Karl has other plans. He decides that he will support Valda and their child. But this presents a challenging dilemma for Karl: how can he become a father and avoid becoming like Bill? Watching him come to terms with his new life provide several of the film’s best moments, as the two try and bond with each other. One of the best scenes in the film is when Karl invites Valda over for dinner with Bill and Maggie. While they sit at the table, they engage in such astounding passive aggressive assaults that it is a wonder that nobody immediately dies as a result.

And this film does contain its fair share of death. Near the two thirds mark of the film, it begins to become clearer who may have betrayed them. They begin to suspect and interrogate people. This is when the bodies start piling up at a truly Shakespearean rate. A good third of my notes on the film were nothing but records of who killed who and how. And yes, these executions are done in the style of your typical mobster film. They are quick, graphic, and seem to come out of nowhere. But in a sense, they are some of the most effective hits that I have ever seen on film.

Let me explain. In most movies, executions propel the plot forward. But there are only a few times that showing the deaths are necessary to the plot. Sure, they are fun to watch, but many times they add nothing to the film other than an R-rating. They could be just as effective if they were shown off screen, like the infamous murder scene in Hitchcock’s Frenzy. But in Down Terrace, the execution scenes are not only critical to the plot, they are imperative to the development of the characters. For example, there is a scene where one character, who we had been led to believe was a timid person, cruelly poisons someone. It is shocking because we never thought that this character was capable of such violence. Their entire character was redefined by the act of murder.

But it must be remembered that the violence in Down Terrace is a means to an end. The heart of the film is its dry, deadpan British wit and how it is used and abused by a family that is slowly imploding. It is alarming when the characters go from joking about cups of tea to bickering over the difficulties of burying a body in the woods. There is always a kettle on and a folk tune playing in the foreground that serves as an ironic counterpart to the action onscreen. And so we are lured into a deadly facade. They may be miserable people doing miserable things to each other, but the characters in Down Terrace are part of one of the most startlingly original films to come out in some time.

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