MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

Digital Nation: Down Terrace

One of the knocks against portrayals of organized crime in American movies and television is that they tend to make criminality look like a reasonable career choice, until the bullets and subpoenas start flying, anyway. The same applies for the use of drugs, alcohol, tobacco and firearms.

It’s fun until it isn’t.

There’s nothing even remotely attractive about being a gangster in Down Terrace, a British comedy so dark that it borders on tragedy. None of the characters resemble Al Pacino or live in homes the Sopranos of New Jersey would envy. The money isn’t even all that good.

Ben Wheatley’s freshman feature has reminded critics of the British cinema’s kitchen-sink dramas of the 1950s and 1960s, as well as the social realism of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. The Brighton in Down Terrace is a million miles away from the London of The Long Good Friday and Mona Lisa. The crime family at the heart of the movie is to those gangster flicks what Married … With Children was to the American sitcom, circa 1987.

Real-life father and son Robert and Robin Hill play the father and son we see exiting prison in the opening scene of Down Terrace. Bill and Karl were fingered by someone in their gang of small-time hoodlums and drug dealers, and they’ll spend the rest of the movie attempting to discover who was responsible. Everyone we meet hereafter is a suspect and the penalty for snitching is death.

So, where’s the comedy, black or otherwise? Everywhere, as it turns out.

The characters’ bickering, rants and stoned banter are often very funny. The abrupt shifts in tone and personal demeanor keep viewers from assuming facts not in evidence. Discovering that Bill and Karl aren’t nearly as dumb as they look is another surprise.

“These people are clever and stupid,” said Wheatley, in Los Angeles for a screening at the Los Angeles Film Festival. “That’s life and it’s what we were trying to capture.”

Most of what happens in the movie occurs within the tight confines of a home indistinguishable from dozens of others in the blue-collar neighborhood. In fact, it was the same Down Terrace house in which co-writer Robin grew up. It’s possible to imagine Archie Bunker living here and verbally abusing Edith in the same way as Bill lobs zingers at his long-suffering wife, Maggie (Julia Deakin), herself a product of a larger crime family.

Wheatley had originally intended to make a film about how Brighton’s drug trade worked and could unravel at the drop of a hat. Brighton, a city of 150,000 on the southeastern coast of England, is famous for its beach and seaside attractions. Like many other British towns, its economy is recovering from a long dry spell.

Down Terrace turned out to be the opposite of that first script,” he acknowledged. “You don’t find out how anything works. You don’t even know what they do, really.

“As the script changed, I stripped out more of the crime stuff and focused on the family.”

According to co-star Michael Smiley, also in L.A. for the screening, the characters’ family history reads like a textbook description of post-World War II vice.

“It wasn’t uncommon for the ‘public-school boys’ to come in contact with more hardened criminals after being busted for selling hashish or grass,” Smiley observed. “They’d form alliances, which would put them in contact with other family members. Together, they hoped to form dynasties.”

This merging of cultures explains how Karl and Bill could engage in sophisticated philosophical discussion or sing the kind of music one might expect from Donovan or Richard Thompson. There’s more going on there than meets the eye.

“You wouldn’t bat an eye if a crook in a Howard Hawks’ movie picked up a guitar and started singing,” said Wheatley. “In focusing on the relationships between father and son, mother and son, we showed how crime was almost a genetic trait and the baton was passed along from one generation to another. The most important thing for the family was survival and Bill and Maggie became psychopathic to protect themselves.

“They’d cover a lie with another lie and a murder with another murder. Everyone in their way became collateral damage.”

Bill’s obsession with finding out who snitched is grounded in his belief that the police hope to drive a wedge between gang and family members, in order to catch the bigger fish in London. If that happened, not only would the envelopes of tribute paid to him by lesser criminals stop, but he could also be permanently eliminated from the chain of command.

Family dynamics are further skewed when Karl brings home his pregnant girlfriend and announces their engagement, even if it’s possible that she got knocked-up while he was in prison. He stands up to his parents by refusing to seek a paternity test and demanding she be made to feel welcome, even if she isn’t. Vonda is played by Robin Hill’s wife, Kerry Peacock.

Wheatley admits to being surprised that festival audiences in America have picked up on the humorous elements of the story, more so even than those in England.

“There’s lots of cultural slang, but they’re on every beat of it,” said Wheatley, who’s also directed several episodes of Ideal, a British sitcom about a lumpen pot dealer and his motley crew of friends and clients. “It’s like the slang in The Wire, in that it just comes out and hits you. They also recognize the family theme and feel for all of them, even though they’re so appalling.”

Down Terrace opens Friday in L.A. and New York, before going wider in weeks to come.

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