Dir: Ben Wheatley
Movies have a tendency to emphasize the allure of the gangster lifestyle. It’s as if every filmmaker is Henry Hill in Goodfellas announcing a lifelong ambition to don a sharply cut suit and stride confidently into neighborhood dominance. Even if a film condemns operating on the other side of the law, it’s usually dominated by details that make building a career around the ready trade of goods that dropped off a truck look like a pretty good deal. It may be rough and risky, but there’s power there too. Who wouldn’t want to take a back entrance into a hot club and have a table hand-delivered to a prime spot right in front of the stage?
Ben Wheatley’s Down Terrace is the opposite. It’s immersed in the mundane, even the low-rent squalor of the life. The characters don’t appear to be climbing up the ladder of social strata. Instead, they’re cemented in the depths of the middle class, a fresh coat of paint on the walls of their Brighton flat the best hope they have of sprucing up their dingy lives. Guy Ritchie has poured his android heart into making British gangsters look as sleek as Ferraris. In Wheatley’s vision, they’ve ambled over from a Mike Leigh movie and wearily plopped down on the sofa.
As the film begins, it comes across as a plain family drama with the notable difference that the father and the son at the center of the story have just been released after some time held in detention by the authorities. Their homecoming is somewhat muted, implying that this is fairly routine. It’s simply part of the family business, like a couple firefighters smelling of smoke. They’re clearly involved in shady dealings, but the film never spells out precisely what. There are plenty of familiar signifiers–little manila envelopes handed over as a form of greeting, offhand queries about the fiscal health of local clubs, the occasional aside about bosses up in London–but the mechanics are left undisclosed. It almost seems innocent. At least until the bodies start stacking up like cordwood.
Like any organized crime figures who’ve spent some time staring down the inside of a cell, they’re preoccupied with figuring out who put them there. They survey the members of their humble local gang and determine the likeliest rat. Acts of retribution invariably lead to similar means of covering up those acts, and soon the body count reaches a high enough member that it strains credibility that local constabulary isn’t sniffing around anew.
Wheatley gives it all a darkly comic spin. When the local hitman shows up to ply his trade, he has his young son in tow, and is completely flummoxed when the intended victim thunders upstairs to lock himself in the bathroom. These supposed criminal titans stand around trying to coax the petrified bloke out as if he were a skittish animal wedged into a crawlspace.
This is well in keeping with how the Y chromosome equipped members of the family go about their business. The father, Bill (Robert Hill), is more concerned with grumbling his way through all interactions, whether reflecting on the purity of intention in his youthful drug use or bullying his son about the pregnant girlfriend who showed up on the doorstep. That son, Karl (Robin Hill, Robert’s real life son), is shaken and shaky. He’s prone to explosive anger and pangs of utter defeat. This pair is ill-equipped to take command of the corner sweet shop, much less manage an underworld enterprise. And so a woman’s work is never done. The family matriarch is Maggie (Julia Deakin), a middle-aged woman with the demeanor of a wrung-out dishtowel. But there are hints of something more insidious to her. She’s an expert practitioner of passive aggressive manipulation, a skill that manifests as an icy ability to take charge when the time comes.
Wheatley collaborated with his lead actor Robin Hill on the screenplay, and they built it with an eye towards the limited budget at their disposal. Most of the film takes place in the flat, and the story’s sparks come from interpersonal dynamics rather than gunplay or striking set pieces. It provides a claustrophobic heaviness that reinforces the grimness of the trap the characters have set for themselves. There’s a similar embrace of the lack of technical prowess. Wheatley’s camera is fidgety as it takes in the tense conversations, seemingly ready to bolt from the room if things get ugly. Down Terrace isn’t defined by its limitations; it takes advantage of them.