Sunday, 9 March 2014

Director Spotlight: Ben Wheatley - Down Terrace Review

After their release from prison, Bill (Robert Hill) and his son Karl (Robin Hill) head home to Down Terrace in Brighton. Bill decides, with the help of his wife Maggie (Julia Deakin), to identify the rat in his criminal operation and a tale of recrimination, betrayal and murder ensues.

Down Terrace, which is the 2009 feature debut of Kill List director Ben Wheatley, represents one of the most exciting calling cards from an emerging talent in recent years.  The last time I saw a director come out the gates with something this strong it was Shane Meadow’s with the brilliant Twenty Four Seven.  Wheatley actually shares with Meadow's an innate ability to balance brittle comedy with shattering moments of violence (both physical and emotional).

The movie was shot over eight days with a small cast and crew (sneeze and you’ll miss the end credits) on an equally tiny budget in the family home of two of its lead actors which is located on the titular Down Terrace in Brighton.  The story meanders from scene to scene in a fashion that shows a marked lack of respect for conventional plot development and pacing instead favouring a jigsaw puzzle approach with pieces that other film-makers would explore deliberately missing.  This perhaps suggests a criticism that the movie has little respect for traditional storytelling and requires the viewer to not so much read between the lines as invent for themselves something to fill that void.  In practice it all comes together beautifully. Down Terrace is more interested in exploring the characters in the moment than revealing all of the mental strings that are pulling them in one direction or the other.  By surgically removing most of the boring and, in this case, unnecessary exposition that can often drag a movie down into the realms of the banal Wheatley succeeds in conjuring up an enigmatic air.  Just what exactly is the criminal business that Bill is involved in?  What was the crime that landed them in jail?  So what if there are some gaps in the narrative. It’s a ploy that works in Down Terrace’s favour by reducing the viewer’s ability to anticipate the sequence of events to come.  It’s a clever tactic and a large part of the reason the movie feels so unique.

Another thing the movie gets right is the extent to which it embraces improvisation as a means of ensuring the dialogue feels unforced.  There’s a natural flow to the conversations throughout Down Terrace that lends the movie a feeling that we’re not watching actors reciting a script but instead makes the viewer feel more like a fly on the wall witnessing real conversations and real drama unfold.  It borders on cinéma vérité at times.  It helps that the movie is cleverly shot in a hand held fashion by the insanely talented Laurie Rose who after this movie has served as DOP on every subsequent Ben Wheatley film.  It’s easy to see what the attraction is.  This is some of the finest hand held camera work I’ve seen.  The way he glides around the actors pulling them into focus on the hop is truly graceful and without him Down Terrace wouldn’t be half the film it is.

With a cast made up of a peculiar mix of comedy actors and people with little to no acting experience at all its remarkable how assured the performances are from all involved.  Everyone is exceptional but the real standout is Julia Deakin as the matriarch of the dysfunctional family at the heart of the movie.  Having only previously seen her in Spaced (where she was brilliant) her performance in Down Terrace is something of a revelation.  Throughout the movie she shifts gears so subtly, with a performance that is at times heart-breaking, at times terrifying (sometimes both at once) but never less than utterly convincing.  Even in her moments of silence her face and eyes speak volumes.  Robert Hill and Robin Hill are also wonderful as Bill and Carl.  The fact that they are father and son in real life lends their relationship in the movie a sense of abject realism.  They feel less like characters and more like living, breathing human beings with all the history and failings that delivers.  Michael Smiley, who like Julia Deakin appeared in Spaced, is great fun as an incredibly ineffective hitman who turns up for a job with his baby in tow (a sneaky nod to Lone Wolf & Cub).  All the actors deliver here with not a single bum note to be found.

Something I’ve not mentioned yet is how funny Down Terrace is.  It’s a humour that comes out of the situations rather than something that feels forced.  There’s a natural flow to the dialogue that comes out of the movie's exploration of the already mentioned improvisation and much of it is funny.  And the humour isn’t limited to only the dialogue.  There are a number of very funny moments including a few inspired moments of violence that border on slapstick.  But beneath the humour and the violence there’s a real feeling of a family destroying itself from the inside and pulling anyone who enters their orbit down with them.  It’s some time into the movie before Wheatley assembles all his chess pieces on the board but once he does the movie enters into a downward spiral of mistrust, betrayal and errors in judgement that drive the narrative towards an utterly satisfying conclusion.

The movie is largely scored with folk music; some played and/or sang by the cast within some scenes whilst other pieces provide a haunting musical backdrop to a scene.  This is another area where the movie really scores by doing something quite unusual that ends up being entirely appropriate and is yet another reason why this movie feels so different and special. Particularly effective is a scene near the end where a revelation results in Robin Hill's character having a total breakdown.  His mother as played by Julia Deakin comforts him by holding him close and singing a lullaby.  It's a moment that is both sad, beautiful and as a result of the hurtful nature of the secret that is revealed, an emotional punch in the gut.  This isn't the only scene that is elevated by the use of music.  The movie is shot through with such moments and the choice of song or musical passage is never less than profoundly affecting and stirringly effective.

Down Terrace is a remarkable debut.  A happy accident that could so easily have gone very wrong if Wheatley hadn’t gotten lucky with the cast and crew he assembled.  With a slightly left of centre mood from start to finish and a narrative that isn’t afraid to follow the odd digression to consistently entertaining effect this stands as one of the most interesting British crime movies not only of the last ten years but of all time.  It also manages to juggle what is at heart a grim story of betrayal, mistrust, familial turmoil and murder without ever becoming the overly serious, depressing kitchen sink crime drama it could have been.  It may be a bit rough around the edges but this is more of a byproduct of the low budget and is a criticism that's easy to dismiss given everything it does right.  A lot of people discovered Wheatley either via Kill List or Sightseers.  I would recommend that anyone who enjoyed his later movies seek out Down Terrace.  I doubt you'll be disappointed.

Steve's Score:

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