Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Ben Wheatley's KILL LIST hits theaters, while DOWN TERRACE streams on Netflix

Flavor of the bi-month (in the FSLC's current issue of Film Comment) and flavor of the quarter (as his film makes the cover of Cinema Scope), Ben Wheatley would seem the current darling of the British independent film scene. Well, we're all always looking for something new-and-different, and Wheatley, at first glance, does provide it. But after a moment-or-two's reflection, it seems to TrustMovies that new-and-different may not quite be synonymous with extra-special. Since KILL LIST, Mr. Wheatley's second feature as director and co-writer, opens theatrically this week, we'll tackle it first, though I might suggest that, before viewing Kill List, you stream his first feature (also-much-loved-by-Brit-crits), DOWN TERRACE (it's available now via Netflix), if only because Kill List will then seem a step upwards in some regards.

Mr. Wheatley, shown above, likes meshing (and messing with) various genres. Kill List, which begins but one step above current Brit miserabilism and family dram/com, goes on to enter the crime-and-hit-man areas, and finally comes out looking like an only-slightly-updated Hammer horror of, say, The Wicker Man sort -- but with some ersatz politics tossed into the mix. The big problem is that, despite relatively good work by all in the writing, acting and directing arenas, this genre-jumbling does not feel the least organic. Instead, it goes along clunk, clunk, clunk.

The first clunk comes with practically the opening frame, in which we see what looks like some kind of Blair Witch insignia. Aha! we think: Scary horror film. (I understand about foreshadowing and all that -- we learned it in school --  but this very early and not at all subtle hint is a bit much.) But then we're suddenly in family rom/dram/com territory, as hubby and wife argue about money and responsibility and what not. Along the way, we note that hubby and his buddy are involved in some kind of military or government-sponsored "business" that went a little haywire some time back.

And then we have a family dinner, in which buddy's date, during a visit to the loo, does something that sounds the second "clunk" of the evening, in an even less subtle manner. And then the killings start (Or maybe they've already begun -- it's been several months since I've seen the film, so its timeline is growing a bit foggy.) One by one, each grows more graphic than the one that preceded it. The second is so bloody/ghastly that my female guest said she came close to rising and talking back to the screen as she walked out of the auditorium, but she stayed silent in her seat, so as not to embarrass me.

By the time we get to the finale Hammer horror section, which really does seem like it is taking place in another movie (we and our two heroes have to traverse underground tunnels to get to this section, and what could be more organic than that), we're primed for just about anything. Which is pretty much what we get. The finale, however, would seem more of a transgressive shocker if A Serbian Film hadn't beaten it to the punch a year or two previous.

Kill List remains impressive on some fronts, chiefly the idea of melding these specific genres rather than its execution. And the cast is quite good, too. I found it a step up from Wheatley's first film in its ambitions, while the psychology of the characters -- at least those in its first two sections -- are quite a bit more on-the-mark.


Down Terrace is certainly more of-a-piece than its predecessor. It does not switch genres but is from the outset what you'd call a dark family/crime comedy. Unfortunately it seems to be rooted in the kind of movie-making that says, "Wouldn't it be funny if such-and-such happened?!" and then sets out to make such-and-such happen -- despite everything we know about psychology, human beings, family bonding, and even drug trafficking (and other popular movie endeavors).

The film begins with father and son leaving the local police station where they appear to have "beaten the rap," though we don't know now (hell, by the end of the movie, we still don't quite know, though we can hazard a good guess) of what that rap consists.

We meet Ma (very well played by Julia Deakin, above) and then several of hers and Pa's friends and neighbors, as well as son's new girlfriend -- all of whom are involved in the family's unsavory whatever. Someone mentions a possible police informant -- and suddenly the shit hits the fan. What had initially seemed a family of weird people soon degenerates into a group for whom Charlie Manson would blush.

When the killing starts in this film, it never stops, growing crazier and less believable with each new "hit." And the film is only occasionally funny, though, as with Kill List, very well-acted. These characters are so very unbelievable as human beings that all credibility soon flies out the window. How could people this nutty have even begun to successfully man (and woman) an illegal business without screwing things up almost at once? The plotting here is by-the-book but pretty weak, and the psychology is nearly non-existent.

Why would the son, for instance (he's the first character in the film to be seen as clearly off-his-rocker) not take to heart word that his pregnant girlfriend (above, left) might just be preggers by another guy? Instead, it's like he never ever heard it, and what happens then, well, you'll see....

It's all just dark, darker, darkest -- with more than a trace of, gosh, aren't we smart/cute! Which is why I give the nod to Kill List as the better of the two films. It opens (at 95 minutes, via IFC Films) this Friday, February 3, in New York City at the IFC Center (and perhaps elsewhere around the country), after playing VOD for the past month or so.  Down Terrace (89 minutes, from Magnet Releasing), as stated earlier, is available for streaming via Netflix and perhaps other VOD-type venues.

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