If like me you’re sick to death of the Brit gangster flicks of the likes of Guy Ritchie and Nick Love (all mockney macho swaggering, glorified violence and rampant misogyny) then first time director and co-writer Ben Wheatley’s Down Terrace is the perfect antidote for all that geezer fatigue. This resolutely unglamorous and darkly comic depiction of one crime family’s descent into paranoia, betrayal and finally murderous retribution is like watching The Godfather as performed by comedians during an episode of Coronation Street.
Filmed in the house on the titular street in Brighton that co-writer and lead actor Robin Hill grew up in Down Terrace presents us with the portrait of a dysfunctional clan in the midst of a meltdown of epic proportions. Wheatley and Hill’s vision is of kitchen sink realism, gallows humour and a dash of Grand Guignol theatrics. Cups of tea are drank, spliffs are rolled and anecdotes swapped, largely within the confines of the family home, as Karl (Hill) and his dad Bill (Robert Hill, Robin’s father) are acquitted from a drugs charge and set about uncovering the rat in their midst. Julia Deakin, who had a recurring role in the much loved sitcom Spaced, plays the family’s matriarch Maggie and morphs from put upon mother to display a controlling persona that embraces cold blooded murder in bleak and cruelly humorous fashion. As the family and their rogues gallery of associates begin to turn on each other and the body count begins to rise the plot does begin to stretch credulity but it’s to the cast and crews credit that they succeed in sucking you into the unfolding events so that the film’s flaws are far outweighed by it’s successes.
The combination of a razor sharp script, oddball characters and a focus on the minutiae of everyday domestic life (redecorating, cooking tea, local gossip) crossed with escalating violence makes Down Terrace a unique treat. Lifelong friends Wheatley and Hill obviously know what makes each other tick and they have a real feel for creating believable characters and a real ear for dialogue, whether it be banal, comedic or brutal.
Confining most of the action to the family home adds to the increasingly claustrophobic and paranoid plot, as the comedy crosses into violence it does feel as if the four walls of the house are closing in around Karl and his parents.. The limited outdoor scenes showing rainy streets, windswept and desolate fields and run down housing estates adds to the air of social realism and shows locations in Brighton that don’t generally make it onto the big screen.
Down Terrace is by no means perfect, there was something a little unsatisfactory about how things concluded and a couple of the plot devices were a little too contrived for comfort but overall it is a huge breath of fresh air injected into a genre that has long been flogging a dead horse. On the evidence of this outing both Wheatley and Hill can look forward to bright futures, and I for one would love to see them tackle other genres, horror especially springs to mind, as they would be sure to bring something fresh to the table.