Thursday, September 2, 2010

Ben Wheatley's DOWN TERRACE

(Down Terrace played at the Sound Unseen Duluth International Film Festival earlier this year, and recently opened in NYC. Hopefully it will make a pass through the Twin Cities; it's a nasty litte comedy. This review was originally publish on In Review Online.)

Ten years ago some friends and I stumbled across a British SNL-type television series called “Jam.” Forget “Monty Python,” “Jam” was a mixed bag of some of the darkest and most off-kilter humor I had ever seen and continues to make me howl every time I watch it. Created by Chris Morris, director of the recent feature Four Lions, “Jam” is proof that the seeds for a film like Down Terrace had already been sown, as it traverses much of the same territory in tone and production. Director Ben Wheatley uses his television know-how from UK comedies “Ideal” and “Wrong Door” to create an unexpectedly wry and deathly dark comedy about a family of odd, low level gangsters.

The film opens as Bill and his son Karl are released from jail on charges that apparently did not hold up in court. They are eager to find who ratted them out, but not until they have had a few beers and smoked a little weed. Bill’s wife Maggie busies herself in making tea and helping Karl who has the ability to throw a fit at the drop of a hat. The three of them criticize and ridicule their random associates that show up to the house, but there is no evidence that they are any different. Bill waxes poetically about transcendentalism, Karl reunites with his now very pregnant ex-girlfriend (much to his parents chagrin) and Maggie emerges as the placid ball-buster of the family and, to some extent, the larger network of the family. Meanwhile the three of them independently start ‘cleaning house’ with droll brutality.

The handheld camerawork and the less-than-dynamic sound may be a form of necessity and comfort for Ben Wheatley, directing his first feature, but it also allows Down Terrace to masquerade its twisted intentions as a docile sitcom. Any attempt to pin down the genre is eventually replaced by trying to wrap your head around these absurd characters that seem less like hardened criminals than two-bit thugs trying to convince everyone (including themselves) that they are hardened criminals. Wheatley’s whip-smart script is perfectly complemented by the ease in which the actors fill the shoes of the incongruous characters. It’s no surprise that the actors who play Bill and Karl are father and son and that Karl’s girlfriend is also his girlfriend off screen. Despite their quirky nature, there is a comfort in which the family sways between clashing and cooperating.

Karl writes his manifest destiny in the family and surfaces as the unlikely star of the film. Played by Robin Hill, who also co-wrote the script with Wheatley, Karl is an unsympathetic man-child clumsily making his own rules. Evidence of coddling from his parents hilariously erupts and then disappears. Shortly after he reconnects with his girlfriend, they are up in his room having a heart-to-heart when Karl suggest they pull out some of the letters she wrote to him in jail as a way to rekindle their affection. He spends about 5 seconds looking for them in his cluttered room before he is convinced that someone taken them. Rendered immobile, he stands upright and simply starts screaming, “Mum! Mum!” at the top of his lungs like a toddler who just lost his teddy bear. Right at the moment you think he is going to go physically ballistic, he looks over and calmly says, “Oh. Here they are.” The bizarre moment is over, but scenes like this set an erratic tone for the entire film.

Down Terrace chronicles two weeks of events and non-events surrounding Bill, Maggie and Karl. The days are marked by on screen intertitles that remind you how much or how little happens, usually in the close confines of the trio’s small flat. The film spirals downward pretty quickly and unfortunately, due to the cheeky nature of the film, it fails to have the effect that it should. Although Down Terrace never rises above the dark cynicism of comedic surreality, it does so with such clever plain-spoken subtlety that the discarded weight of the body bags hardly matters. Down Terrace adds a fresh, but slightly bitter and dispassionate, take on the gangster genre that revels in low-gloss of filmmaking and dark idiosyncrasies of human nature.

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