Three solid ways for an independent filmmaker to get the most out of a low budget: Make a crime picture, so the plot will be exciting even in limited locations; make a family drama, so there’s an excuse for all the action to take place in one house; or hire a bunch of funny people to riff, so that the audience will be entertained even when there’s not much going on. First-time feature director Ben Wheatley tries all three of those approaches with Down Terrace, a shambling gangster movie about father and son ex-cons (played by Robert and Robin Hill) who passive-aggressively pick at each other in between meeting with their eccentric associates. The film takes place over the course of two weeks in the Hills’ tasteful middle-class Brighton home, presided over by the even-keeled Julia Deakin, who tries to give her boys whatever they need, even when it’s not good for them. At first the Hills are largely concerned with settling into a routine after their long stretch in prison—and Robin’s excited to see an old girlfriend who turns up claiming to be pregnant with his child—but then business intrudes, and they get busy handling old debts.
Wheatley’s screenplay (co-written with Robin Hill, who also edited the film) isn’t always as clever as it lets on. Some of the comic dialogue is too corny, like Deakin trotting out the old, “He’s not fat, he’s got big bones” to describe a family member, or Robert responding to the news of his son’s unexpectedly growing family with, “I’ve heard of sudden death, but sudden birth?” And the movie’s third-act shift from low-key comedy to jittery, violent drama isn’t smooth. But Wheatley uses his folky soundtrack well (including Karen Dalton’s haunting recording of “Are You Leaving For The Country?”) and the characters deepen as the film plays on, developing from deadpan comic slackers to people who’ve grown dreadfully sick of each other’s weaknesses. When Down Terrace gets in a good groove, Wheatley and Hill’s dialogue is both funny and pointed, as when Robin talks about Hitler’s dog (“Not really his fault,” he sympathizes), or when Robert says that his spiritual journeys have taught him that, “You’re only as good as the people you’re with.” Cut to his son, blood quietly boiling.