A hit man accompanied by his tow-haired toddler offers his services to a local crime boss, explaining the need to market oneself these days. The boss, potential client for a swift and tidy assassination-by-hammer, asks nonchalantly: "Have you got a Web presence?"
The British do kitchen-sink realism extremely well; they also have a nice way with black comedy. It's rare, however, to see the two as wickedly combined as they are in Down Terrace, a low-budget offering from director Ben Wheatley that is part cinéma-vérité family drama, part blood-soaked crime caper.
No, caper is not quite the word; it's more like a march. As Wheatley stacks up a series of cold-blooded executions among members of a close-knit, small-time crime family in an English seaside town, he rarely permits himself the crowd-pleasing delights of speed and suspense. Disregarding the examples of Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers, Wheatley eschews the hyper pace and sudden reversals of contemporary American crime drama in favour of the languor of vérité.
That slow and deadpan approach should reveal a lot more of the criminals' characters, and indeed there are several lovely portraits of amorality in this film. That said, Down Terrace is more of an interesting experiment than a resounding success: There are many ellipses in the plot and there's a surprise ending that fails to satisfy the desire to know more about these people.
The film opens as Bill (Robert Hill) and his son Karl (Robin Hill) leave a courthouse after some drug charges against them have been dropped. It's unclear whether they have been in custody or not, but with relief they return home to the grim row-house they share with their wife and mother Maggie (Julia Deakin). A desultory party follows, featuring the heart-felt congratulations of two henchmen, the nerdy Garvey (Tony Way) and the pushy Eric (David Schaal), but it rapidly becomes clear that neither friend nor relation is above suspicion. Who snitched to the police? As the family kills off one associate after another, Karl's irrational rages, Bill's icy toughness and Maggie's unshakeable calm each become their own black joke.
The performers' naturalism is remarkable as that trio describes a particularly toxic family dynamic in which Bill acts as a viciously manipulative patriarch to an infantilized Karl, with supposed peacemaker Maggie as his secret accomplice.
What is often less satisfying is the storyline, as Wheatley struggles to weave back story into his almost documentary style. There is one highly successful speech from Bill about how he never intended to become a criminal; he was just a young artist consuming drugs to alter his consciousness and pushing them to make enough money for supplies. On the other hand, there is an odd moment where Maggie mumbles away about her father which, along with various other mysterious references to family history and a deathbed revelation from the corrupt local councillor that is largely inaudible, leave the viewer out of the narrative loop.
There is a powerful sense here that this family is a real one, with a history beyond the camera's frame: That is both the film's clear strength and the viewer's occasional frustration.
- Directed by Ben Wheatley
- Written by Robin Hill and Ben Wheatley
- Starring Robert Hill, Robin Hill and Julia Deakin
- Classification: 14A