'Down Terrace'

TV scribe-helmer Ben Wheatley has concocted a nifty black comedy.

Cleverly channeling gangster tropes through a British kitchen-sink soap opera, TV scribe-helmer Ben Wheatley has concocted a nifty black comedy, with a little help from his friends, in “Down Terrace.” Shot in eight days, starring co-scripter Robin Hill and Hill’s father, and set in the latter’s house, pic turns its low-budget liabilities into atmospheric assets. Comparisons with “The Sopranos” seem inevitable, though “Terrace’s” handheld camerawork, raggedly claustrophobic aesthetic and improv-comedy rhythms could not be farther from David Chase’s cable masterwork. Picked up by Magnet, this perverse genre-twister could prove a summer sleeper.

Bill and son Karl (played by real-life father and son Robert and Robin Hill, respectively), recently acquitted after four months in jail, sit around drinking, smoking pot and wondering who ratted them out, while a succession of overweight underlings drop by to hug, schmooze and deliver the take from the family’s shady enterprises. Visitors seem too big for the house, barely squeezing by each other, so when Karl’s hugely pregnant g.f., Valda (Robin Hill’s real-life g.f., Kerry Peacock) appears, the display of unlovely flesh becomes almost too much in lenser Laurie Rose’s insistent closeups.

Bodies clutter the parlor, propped up on furniture, wrapped in plastic awaiting disposal. About the only time the characters venture outside is to whack or be whacked, to bury or be buried.

In the ensuing carnage, anything that takes up too much space, physically or psychologically (like doubts or inconvenient truths), triggers violence. For they are a thin-skinned lot, these two-bit crooks, quick to take offense or irrationally jump to conclusions, forever threatened by others’ perceptions of them. Thus, Pringle (Michael Smiley), the gang’s freelance assassin, carting along his 3-year-old on a hit when he can’t find a sitter, brags of his kid’s dirty fighting skills but bristles at a purely imagined slight on his paternity.

In a long, hilariously written and brilliantly acted monologue, Bill bemoans the transcendent drug culture of yore — the days when, like Timothy Leary, he was a smoker, an artist, a poet, only to discover that everybody else was in it for the money. His wife, Maggie (Julia Deakin), the true brains of the outfit, sees herself as guardian of a criminal clan begun by her father; she’s fully capable of poisoning her near-and-dear one minute, and bitterly crying over them the next.

Wheatley’s warts-and-all view of this stifling domestic setting proves less invested in noir atmospherics than in imploded family dynamics. Bill shifts from full-fledged paranoia to guitar-strumming harmony without missing a beat. Karl, dissed by his father and infantilized by his mother (he does display a certain childish temperament — stark raving mad one minute, happy-go-lucky the next), turns out to be more of a chip-off-the-old-block than he ever imagined.

Wheatley blankets his soundtrack with bluesy folksongs, often vaguely sinister in tone, in contrast with the rollicking ditties that reign when fiddlers and cello players show up to jam with Bill on his Gibson. Pic’s droll, improv-spiced conflation of working-class slang, underworld argot and intellectual musings might be better appreciated Stateside with subtitles.

Down Terrace

Production

A Magnet Releasing release of a Mondo Macabro Movies, Baby Cow production. Produced by Andy Starke. Directed by Ben Wheatley. Screenplay, Wheatley, Robin Hill.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Laurie Rose; editor, Hill; music, Jim Williams; sound, Rob Entwistle, Andy Hoare, Sara Hunt, Joao Valle; sound designer, Martin Pavey. Reviewed at Museum of Modern Art, New York, March 17, 2010. (In New Directors/New Films; Slamdance, Rotterdam film festivals; Berlin Film Festival -- market; 2009 Fantastic Fest, Austin.) Running time: 93 MIN.

With

Robert Hill, Robin Hill, Julia Deakin, David Schaal, Tony Way, Kerry Peacock, Michael Smiley, Mark Kempner.

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