Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With Black Mass currently in theaters, and Legend on its way to them, we’re recommending gangster movies.
The spirit of Timothy Leary hangs over the characters of Down Terrace. Fresh out of lockup and waxing nostalgic, Brighton crime family patriarch Bill (Robert Hill) describes his acid-tripping salad days to his son Karl (Robin Hill), who has recently picked up his old man’s knack for self-medication. But hallucinations aren’t just a lifestyle hazard in Ben Wheatley’s debut film. They’re a guiding aesthetic principle.
Without ever explicitly tipping into the surrealism that has dominated the director’s recent efforts—including his brand-new and enjoyably bonkers J.G. Ballard adaptation High-Rise—Down Terrace radiates with the kind of barely suppressed madness that many crime films reduce to character pathology. Here, the craziness is folded into the editing and mise en scene. While the drab color palette and cramped middle-class interiors are familiar from any number of other contemporary U.K. crime dramas, there’s a jabbing aspect to the imagery that seats the audience on the same razor’s edge as the characters.
Bill and Karl are convinced that somebody in their circle ratted them out to the police, and their attempts to locate and punish the guilty party are haphazard and hilarious. But the real story in Down Terrace happens in between the plot points: It’s a double-portrait of monstrous masculinity, with both Bill and Karl displaying the kind of weakness, disloyalty, and self-serving hypocrisy that are supposedly anathema in the close-knit world of organized crime. Except, of course, that it’s precisely this sort of narcissistic amorality that their whole enterprise—and family unit—is erected on. Lest this description make the film sound heavy handed, let it also be said that the tone is generally comic in a way that heightens, rather than blunts, the cultural critique. (Also, the women are just as malevolent as the men: Julia Deakin is indelible as Bill’s wife Maggie, who thinks nothing of slipping a little poison into a pot of afternoon tea.)
At times, the film plays as a flat-out farce, as when the great Michael Smiley—who would return in Wheatley’s subsequent Kill List—shows up as an assassin who brings his young son to work because he can’t find a babysitter. The idea of a contract killer tenderly minding his child while on the clock is wickedly, perversely funny, yet considering Down Terrace’s general theme of inherited evil—of apples dropping close to rotten trees—it’s also rather unsettling. Wheatley’s triumph is to keep things simultaneously amusing and appalling for the duration, leading up to an ending that goes even further than The Sopranos ever dared in visualizing the latent rage that the children of mob families hold for their parents.
Availability: Down Terrace is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Netflix or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased through the major digital services.