Down Terrace isn’t an easy movie to casually describe. Stylistically it has the British kitchen sink realism of a Mike Leigh work. Thematically we’re in the Coen Bros’ world of dipshit lowlifes farcically unraveling their own doom. The film is vérité, yet has a heightened reality. It is dramatically intimate, yet ironically detached. Its humor is subtle, yet cartoonishly broad. It moves at a snail’s pace, yet the bodies pile up fast. Even after taking several days to think about the film before starting this review I am still puzzling through my precise feelings. Suffice to say, good or bad, Down Terrace is a unique film. (Though I found it quite good too.)
This is the first feature effort from the creative team of Ben Wheatley and Robin Hill. Both men wrote the film, with Wheatley directing and Hill taking the lead acting role. According the Interwebs, before working in UK television, the two blokes burst onto the comedy scene with a series of viral videos, including “cunning stunt,” which I recall seeing many moons ago…
I threw that in here because, even though Down Terrace is 88 minutes and 50 seconds longer than “cunning stunt,” it affects the same thematic shtick. Like the short video, the film comes at your with realism, all the better to blindside you with its sudden darkly comedic violence.
The film is very stingy with background information. We open with Karl (Robin Hill) arriving home after having spent a brief time jail. For what? We don’t really find out. He lives with his father, Bill (Robin Hill’s real-life father, Robert Hill) and mother, Maggie (Spaced’s Julia Deakin). The family runs a criminal enterprise. Again, it isn’t spelled out what the enterprise is exactly. At first I was guessing they’re maybe pot dealers, but as the film progresses we learn they’re into much deeper crime – the organized kind, it seems. We do learn that they think someone in their tiny organization might have tipped the coppers off about whatever it was exactly that Karl was arrested for. The family’s meandering attempts to uncover the identity of their mole is the closest thing Down Terrace has to a storyline, and there isn’t a lot of it. Aside from our characters own incompetence, further mucking up the family’s lives is Valda (Kerry Peacock), Karl’s old girlfriend who has become fairly pregnant with Karl’s baby while he was away. Bill and Maggie are not particularly excited to have Valda as part of the family. Then people start to die.
While a spiraling madness of violence eventually forces the film to become story-focused in its final third, for the most part plot is a lesser concern for Wheatley and Hill. Down Terrace is a slow, slow burn, and the film is really just a collection of funny little bits, sketches, and musical breaks. And I mean musical breaks. Every now and then Bill will bust out a guitar, either by himself or with another character joining in, and treat us to a bit of Brit folk-blues. With the film’s docu-esque editing style, these moments simply happen (the music sometimes accompanying visuals of another scene), and then the film moves on with no comment. This is the type of thing you’ll either go for or not. I went for it. While it doesn’t necessarily add anything to the story, like I said, there really isn’t a story to add to. It sets a mood, and it gives us an impression of Bill we might not otherwise get purely through his dialogue and actions (more on Bill in a second). Plus, it’s just good music.
The sketch-like nature of the film is best typified in a scene where Valda first comes over to see Karl. Up in Karl’s room, Karl wants to find the love letters Valda had previously sent him. Only he can’t find them. At first the scene is low-key funny, with Karl awkwardly bumbling about his room, like the British The Office. Then Karl starts getting angry. Then he starts screaming with anger. He keeps getting angrier and angrier, the reality of the moment going from low-key realism to a much sillier place. Then suddenly stopping on a dime, we’re hit with the button-gag: Karl finds the letters and immediately goes back to not being angry as though nothing ever happened. This is early on in the film, and after several scenes of Mike Leigh-esque character bits, this is the first indication of where Down Terrace’s funny bone is actually placed. We now know the film is capable of getting not only broad, but of using its feigned realism to hit us with an unexpected bit.
And the film gets very broad on a few occasions (though it saves these moments up, using them wisely). Wheatley and Hill are all about surprising you. I wish there had been a way to hype this film without mentioning the murders (as you’d never guess that’s where the film is heading based on the beginning), but the dark comedy and violence are so intrinsic to the film and its appeal that not revealing the murders wouldn’t leave much to talk about.
Broad moments and murders aside, a lot of humor is mined from the mellow moments. Simple scenes, like Karl looking through the family photo album with Maggie and discovering how few pictures of him as a baby there are; then Maggie indifferently trying to explain how expensive photos used to be, despite the vast number of pictures of her and Bill in the album. My favorite scene in the film is one where Bill, Karl and Pringle (Michael Smiley), the family’s lame hitman, confronts another employee, Garvey (Tony Way), about being the mole. Garvey catches on fast and locks himself in the bathroom. The proceedings become extremely British as the three men try to calmly talk Garvey out of the bathroom. Pringle wants to break through the glass on the door, but Bill refuses, “You can’t do that. It’s Victorian glass.” Oh, the Brits.
The performances are all great. Robin Hill’s Karl is probably the weakest of the performances, which isn’t to say he’s bad; just not as good as the others. David Schaal, as the gleefully sociopathic Uncle Eric gets some of the best bits, including the most unexpected murder in the film. Michael Smiley’s Pringle is a really great character – the ironically uncharacteristic hitman is a trite type at this point, but I’ve never seen one done quite the way they did Pringle, who has his small child in hand when we first meet him. The real star of the show here is Robert Hill’s Bill. The fact that Down Terrace is Hill’s only listed acting credit (aside from a short made by Robin Hill), makes his performance all the more fascinating. Bill, with his music playing, pot smoking, and dashiki garbs, is a leftover from the counter-culture movement. He waxes philosophically about ponderous things, constantly lecturing and disapproving of Karl, which makes the slow revelation that he doesn’t really know what he’s doing all the more interesting and funny. Hill’s performance is spellbinding in its simplicity. Bill is both sedate and cruel. And like I said, seeing his musical side adds a level of depth, a window into a past Bill had maybe once wanted before going down the path of crime.
My only disappointment with Down Terrace is that in the end it emotionally left me feeling as though it were just an Internet sketch. The big “cunning stunt” twist in the final seconds of the film isn’t a visual one, but an emotional one – or lack there of, rather. While the film’s events become increasingly shocking and comical, there is ultimately no real pay off. Things simply end. This is another Coen Bros tactic, but with the Bros it is always a gut-punch or a pulling the rug out from under you moment. The Coen’s like to leave you frustrated and unfulfilled from what you wanted or expected to see happen. I had no expectations for Down Terrace, other than something in keeping with the rest of the film. But the conclusion made everything I’d just seen feel a bit trivial when I realized the film is over. Upside: this is also evidence of how successful the film is at getting you involved with the characters. I was expecting something more at the end. What I got was a simply a joke.
Down Terrace is a weird little gem. It is the kind of film that I’d recommend to someone even if I wasn’t sure they’d necessarily like it. Wheately and Hill are now near the top of my Filmmakers to Watch list.