U.K. TV vet Ben Wheatley’s zingy, caustic first feature about the pathetic dad-son kingpins of a two-bit syndicate in Brighton plays as a kitchen-sink black comedy—one clogged up with a nasty hairball of filial rage, parental scorn, regression, and humiliation. The more gruesome violence stems not from criminal behavior, but from the intractable muck of the nuclear family.
The autobiographical elements of Down Terrace, shot in eight days and spanning 13, nicely heighten the domestic queasiness: Robin Hill (who also co-scripted with Wheatley and edited) and his real-life father, Robert, star as Karl and Bill, recently sprung from a four-month jail stint and back home with constantly aggrieved Mum/wife Maggie (Julia Deakin); almost all of the action takes place in the elder Hill’s own two-story residence, where the younger Hill grew up. Their crime never specified, Karl and Bill are feted by pasty, piggy henchmen, whom father and child mock mercilessly as soon as the underlings hand over cash-stuffed envelopes and show themselves out. Bill, swearing he’ll find out which one of his flunkies is talking to the police, saves most of his energy for ridiculing his son’s insistence that pregnant Valda, the ex-girlfriend Karl met as a pen pal while in prison (and played by Kerry Peacock, Robin Hill’s wife), is carrying his child.
Karl, 34 years old but prone to the tantrums and sartorial style of a toddler, starts the corpse pile-up by furiously responding to a dim-witted club runner who unknowingly casts doubts on his paternity. Fatherhood, it seems, is always fragile: “That’s what dads do—they die,” Bill scoffs earlier to the same lunk as the greasy-haired oaf fondly remembers his gangland pop, summing up Down Terrace’s bitter, witty takedown of puffed-up but impotent patriarchs. Martyred matriarchs wield more insidious power: Maggie, forever making tea, serving tarts, and shuffling from room to room in her olive-green cardigan, proves a briskly efficient emotional terrorist when she tells Karl, “Valda will be like all the rest—she’ll leave you,” before lying down to cuddle with him.
Since its U.S. premiere at Sundance in January, Down Terrace, with its skeletal, offings-propelled plot secondary to the study of its detailed sociopaths, has frequently been appreciated as “The Sopranos meets Mike Leigh.” But a more fruitful comparison might be to last year’s stand-out British satire In the Loop (another first feature by a small-screen pro, Armando Iannucci): In both films, verbal aggression makes for the biggest laughs and the surest signs of moral decay.