Imagine if the makers of urban Brit pic “Bullet Boy” and Mike Leigh had collaborated on a remake of “Funny Games,” and you have a rough approximation of “Cherry Tree Lane,” an impressively dark chamber piece from helmer Paul Andrew Williams. Tale of a well-heeled middle-class couple whose home is invaded by teen thugs benefits from some excellent naturalistic perfs, polished tech credits and muscular helming. That said, with its grim, violent content (even though the worst happens offscreen), “Cherry” won’t thrive in theatrical soil, and will pose a tricky marketing challenge for distributors.
Unspooling in real time, the action kicks off with young couple Christine (Oz thesp Rachael Blake, very strong) and Mike (Tom Butcher) settling down for just another weekday evening at home after work. Ten minutes or so of oblique dialogue over their frozen dinners is enough to convey that the marriage is going through a rocky patch.
Their quasi-“Scenes From a Marriage” squabbling is abruptly interrupted by the arrival of three young men, one of them armed with a knife, looking for Christine and Mike’s temporarily absent teenage son, Sebastian (Tom Kane). After tying up Christine and Mike with duct tape, the invaders — borderline-psycho Rian (Jumayn Hunter), mildly nicer Asad (Ashley Chin, a standout here) and minion Teddy (Sonny Muslim) — settle in to wait for Sebastian’s return. The trio wants revenge on the teenager for passing information to the police that has led to the imprisonment of Rian’s cousin.
Writer-helmer Williams has reportedly declared he’s never seen either version of Michael Haneke’s twice-made “Funny Games.” The parallels, however, are striking, from the single-location construction to the way the worst horrors are mostly heard or implied rather than directly seen. Unlike Haneke’s tricksy fable, “Cherry Tree Lane” doesn’t directly confront the aud about its own problematic attitude toward violence, and it’s not as complex or challenging. But then again, it’s a lot less pretentious and repellent, and scores points just as well for its consideration of how people become desensitized to violence by brutalizing conditions.
Furthermore, despite its horrors, “Cherry” has a genuinely funny strain of gallows humor, especially in the first half, during which the invading teens kill time before the killing time by watching TV. (They have to take the duct tape off Mike’s mouth so he can tell them which remote-control button to press to get the satellite stations.)
Meanwhile, stylized lensing (terrific work by d.p. Carlos Catalan) and an unsettling soundscape of source noise and music by electronica outfit Unkle create incrementally creepy suspense. Pic’s canny blend of ultra-realism and horror motifs make this the missing link between Williams’ almost bafflingly dissimilar previous features: the gritty crime drama “London to Brighton” and the straight-up scarefest “The Cottage.” Pic ends too abruptly to satisfy completely, but its economy is laudable.