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.
Based on the 2005 novel by Japanese-English author Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go is a successful example of sensationalist plot and subdued language gone celluloid. It’s the mid-1990s, and the British government is cloning humans to provide donor organs for transplant surgeries. The story is framed by the reminiscing voice of our heroine, Kathy, played by the kind-eyed Carrie Mulligan. She looks back on her formative years spent at Hailsham, a boarding school established to educate and incubate child clones until they’re ready for their first donations at age eighteen. It follows her relationship with Tommy, played by Andrew Garfield, and Ruth, the archetypical frenemie who snatches him away, played by Keira Knightly, who is even more gaunt than usual in the role. For her sake, I hope this doesn’t typecast her as an eternal inpatient; though it feels like her peaked pallor, ghoulish piano fingers, and seemingly detachable jaw might finally have found a purpose.
Adult Kathy is a “carer,” one who nurses donors throughout surgeries until their inevitable, euphemistic “completion.” It’s only a matter of time though before she too will have to donate. Essential information is deployed cautiously, with little dramatic irony. Our vision of Hailsham as a fortifying utopia is destroyed concurrently with the childrens’ naïve innocence. “You will become adults, but only briefly,” says Miss Lucy, an idealistic — and quickly sacked — teacher with a prolicivity towards full-disclosure.
It’s in the film’s final segment that all mounting emotion coalesces. Kathy and Tommy are driving home after being forced to face their close demise. He gets out of the car, stumbles into the middle of the road — profile backlight by the headlights — and begins to howl, werewolf-like. Andrew Garfield’s face is fragile and ropey, like a baby dinosaur’s, and he can distort it terribly when his sweetness breaks into uncontrollable wails. The shot is maintained for a queasily long time, forcing a full spectrum of reaction: first, satisfaction of recognizable repetition (a similar scene transpires earlier when Tommy is a young boy — he slaps Kathy away when she tries to calm him down), then mild disappointment at the predictability of the echoing, then sympathy with Tommy, then repulsion at such a carnal outpouring, then sympathy once again, and finally relief that the scene is not an exact rehashing — that he doesn’t hit Kathy when she tries to comfort him.
The masterful structuring within the last few minutes is when the authorial precision of Ishiguro’s screenplay comes through most. And in his cyclical style, we conclude where we began, with Kathy peering through a pane of glass at Tommy. He’s dying on the operating table, organs extracted one-by-one. The scene is at once clinical and gripping, like an Eakins painting made animate. We see doctors’ hands wielding metallic instruments; we see Tommy’s eyes dim out. Kathy’s closing monologue indicates an acceptance of what’s in store.
Storyline aside, it should be said that Adam Kimmel’s cinematography and Mark Digby’s production design positively feed off the assumption of the audience’s casual anglophilia. And they deliver: There are romps through misty moors, rugby shirts in the perfect shade of ecru, cups of tea resting on leather-bound tomes, girls sitting cross-legged in cable knit sweaters, Wellies by the front door. The coziness ensures our empathy with the clones, who speak, act, and feel just like all the “originals” we’ve ever encountered in life. The fetishizing really only starts to feel sinister during the scenes at Hailsham, which to me came across like a pedophile’s playground, teeming with Tadzios, littered with Lolitas. They do their “maths” homework and play “at sport.” Throngs of pale little thighs trot across green fields. There’s something alarming about such unnervingly beautiful children, especially in great quantity — their rosy cheeks and twinkling eyes straight off an advertisement for alpine muesli. It’s hard to look at children so Aryan and so sprightly and not think Nazi youth. Considering that discussions of cloning always seem to devolve into arguments about eugenics, I guess this is the point.
The seductive details seem endless, and the pleasure they inspire feels, at times, just short of heavy-handed. The children barter for toys with colorful tokens. Glass bottles of creamy milk are systematically snatched up by tiny paws. The aestheticizing is aggressive, but always deliberate. The palette throughout, with its overexposed brightness and punctuating color dissolves (celadon, cornflower, butter yellow), feels like a nod to English films of the 1960s. Lindsay Anderson’s If… and Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now come to mind. It’s a faded, menacing cheer in keeping with the horrific reality of children who live only to die.
Alternate histories lend themselves well to the screen: Political paranoia is a satisfying, suspenseful mood to sustain, especially when it’s embellished with period trappings. And startling anachronisms are always fun to spot. The British have a rich history of dystopian science fiction, of civic allegory run amok. It makes sense that an insular island — an obsolete empire — would produce extreme parable. The enclosed spaces (gothic manors, futuristic hospitals, thatched-roof conclaves) exaggerate isolation and remove. Microcosms make for good thought experiments. The hypothesis — and conclusion — here seem to be one and the same. Clones: They’re just like us.