F.I.L.M. of the Week (April 28, 2016)

28 04 2016

Down TerraceThe British cinema scene is full of people doing lots of interesting work, but it still gets reduced quite frequently to familiar genres: the black comedy, the kitchen sink melodrama, the suburban crime saga. In his debut feature, “Down Terrace,” Ben Wheatley has the gall to meld all three into one audacious genre-mashing movie. The result is something spry and altogether wonderful, so much so that it is my selection for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.” (In case you’re just joining this six year old column, that’s a contrived acronym for “First-Class, Independent Little-Known Movie.”)

The film begins on the five year anniversary of the U.K. following the U.S. into Iraq, as a muffled radio announcer lets us know. This seemingly insignificant detail grabs attention for its inclusion, precisely because it must somehow become significant. My take, for what it’s worth, is that the announcement indicates a fissure in The Special Relationship that presages a breakdown in a different kind of special relationship – that of a family, and specifically between the father Bill and his son Karl.

The two are played by a real-life father and son (Robert and Robin Hill), a fact that feels obvious after watching. But it is not necessary knowledge to buy their familial ties, nor does it serve as a kind of gimmick for “Down Terrace” to exploit. From the opening shot in which the pair leaves a police station, their difference of approach becomes starkly apparent. Bill remains committed to getting the family business running like it was, while Karl looks elsewhere. His girlfriend, Valda, shows up claiming to carry his child. Karl embraces the idea of keeping the child; Bill immediately suggests abortion and implies she might be trying to con Karl into fathering another man’s baby.

The main narrative engine of “Down Terrace” comes from smoking out a rat in the organization that may have put Karl and Bill in prison, yet the film’s real power derives from the ever-shifting family dynamics. Not only does the age-old father and son drama play out; the annoyances and angers of the matriarch, Maggie (Julia Deakin), get their time in the spotlight. Her worries and anxieties feel especially well realized, not simply brushed off the margins. Wheatley, who co-wrote the script with Robin Hill, makes her an equal participant in the family’s dirty dealings, not just a passive observer.

Maggie and Bill foil quite plainly with Valda and Karl, providing an excellent illustration in how generational differences can make one reluctant or welcome to change. The friction between them slowly builds until it reaches a shocking ending that you simply must see for yourself. I just hope you don’t see it coming.

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