There was a storefront in my hometown that sold luxury dog accessories, irreverent gifts, frozen yogurt, and whatever’s stocked by a “mercantile” all within a few years’ time. Nothing good can come of such a place. It’s a fact of pop urban planning — or maybe just local hearsay — that certain corners are “cursed.” There are people like this too. They’re toxic, reeking of fated failure. They’re literally repellant, and you worry their floundering might be contagious. Usually movies are not made about these kinds of people. Nobody wants to sit with them for 90 minutes.
But these noxious souls are the stars of Down Terrace, the debut film by Ben Wheatley, which was released last year in the UK and is just now in New York. Bill and Karl, played by real-life father and son Robert and Robin Hill, run a small-time crime syndicate in Brighton and are just back from prison. Maggie, the mediating matriarch (played by Julia Deakin) brews countless cups of tea while Bill attempts to quell bursts of rage and Karl spouts new-age nonsense (Timothy Leary’s genius, the power of fasting, triangles, caves). At one point, Maggie complains that she’s always “cleaning up after bloody men” — a double entendre of the nice, British variety. Senseless killing continues throughout the entire film. And when Bill’s ex-girlfriend, Vlada (Kerry Peacock), shows up unexpectedly — well into her third trimester — things go from bad to worse.
My powers of speculative empathy are most exercised when I imagine myself as a man who accidentally impregnates his girlfriend who then refuses to abort the baby. No hypothetical can make me madder than that. So although we’re asked to sympathize with Vlada, Karl’s reaction to her arrival (“I’ve heard of sudden death, but sudden birth?”) still struck a nerve in me. Karl’s the locus of most of the film’s humor. Down Terrace is marketed as a black comedy, so appropriately there aren’t many joke-jokes, but it’s still funny. In one scene, Karl vetoes Bill’s idea to name the baby “Norbert,” claiming it sounds medieval. Pointing out the absurdity of certain proper nouns will always guarantee a laugh from me.
Vérité is often nothing more than a euphemism for ugliness. And there’s nothing uglier than suburban England — except for dusty bookshelves fortressed by tschotkes, of which there are also many shots here. Likewise, doom is written all over the characters’ faces, who look like they’ve walked straight out of a Kippenberger self-portrait. Vlada’s makeup is caked on, Maggie’s highlights are brassy, Bill’s handsomeness is encased in bloat, and the only source of Karl’s gravity is his relentless cruelty towards his own family. It’s exhausting to watch claustrophobic hopelessness. It’s impossible to feel for such a grim, miserable family — even when they aren’t killing everyone in their midst.
My own litmus test for bad moods is how disproportionately undone I can become at my own doorstep while searching my purse for house keys. The spectrum goes from mild annoyance to brink-of-tears fury. But even that self-knowledge didn’t prevent me from recognizing the first sign of Bill’s pathological rage. It comes right away, in the first scene. He’s throwing a tantrum, struggling to remove his tie (“It’s like a fucking noose!”). I laughed, but hesitantly, imagining what I must look like when the contents of my bag are spilled all over the hallway, and I’m frantically pawing through piles of personal trash. Never has menswear seemed like such a burden. Moments such as these — when we’re forced to identify with the characters’ irrational wrath — are depicted dangerously well.
The tokens of dinginess in Down Terrace would come across as mere indie signifiers if this were an American film: the days-of-the-week chapter titles in Helvetica, the grown men with mutton chops, the flimsy poly-blend polos. But here, they’re only meant as setpieces for a natural ambiance. And the stylizing works. Peripheral characters are killed off one-by-one until only the nuclear family (plus Vlada plus unborn baby) remains. Relatively unmotivated violence feels of a piece with such a vile atmosphere, and you don’t question the murders as much as you might in a more refined setting. The characters’ amorality seems to have been absorbed by way of environmental osmosis.
At first, I thought it was an ethical failing of the film that I wasn’t obliged to react to its brutality, that the dreariness numbed me to its violence. And this suspicion was complicated by the half-expected resolution, the only time at which the plot feels so urgently assured. Bill and Vlada’s baby-bump-buffered-embrace in the final scene is their first moment of visible relief. It’s horrifying to feel only now, in the wake of such total bloodshed, that all might be OK, that only by removing human irritants can life proceed.