Had Patrick Bateman been born a decade later on the other side of the Atlantic, would he still carry a torch for Huey Lewis and the News? Or would he find solace in the Chemical Brothers and Radiohead between marathon coke-fueled orgies and bouts of homicide? Owen Harris’ “Kill Your Friends,” which stars Nicholas Hoult as a psychopathic London A&R man in the late 1990s, at least provides an answer to that question. Starting as a knives-out music-business satire before careening off the deep end into the sort of scorched-earth, nuance-free nihilism that makes Chuck Palahniuk look like Whit Stillman, the film has its razor-sharp grace notes and a seductive stylishness, neither of which can override its relentlessly adolescent worldview. Commercial appeal will likely be niche, though any bitter aspiring musician whose demos keep going unplayed will surely find some validation here.
Protagonist Steven Stelfox (Hoult) makes his entrance leather loafers first, as his sneering voiceover asks, “Do these look like the shoes of someone who gives a f–k about the Velvet Underground?” Though Steven works at a record label, his hatred of music is matched only by his hatred of sobriety, women and his co-workers, and he gives ample demonstration of this loathsomeness in the opening scene: ingesting Olympian levels of coke and booze, snickering at the CD collection of his colleague (James Corden), and finally urinating on him as he lies unconscious in his living room.
Since Steven is motivated by neither passion for music nor passion for money, his entire raison d’etre is advancement, particularly advancement to the head A&R position at Unigram Records. To get there, he’ll scheme, cajole and double-cross his way through a pack of rivals, egged on by the label’s spectral head of legal affairs (Joseph Mawle), who appears every so often to whisper sweet Sun Tzu maxims into his ear. Before long, when this process proves too gradual, he’ll simply bludgeon one of these rivals to death while screaming about Paul Weller.
In the early going at least, his Machiavellian machinations are interesting to watch. Scripted by onetime A&R exec John Niven (from his own novel), and boasting Warner Music Group owner Len Blavatnik and former Epic Records chief Amanda Ghost among its producers, the film paints a vulgar picture — alternately knowing and cartoonish — of the record industry’s last gasp of high Neronian decadence. Steven’s job is essentially high-stakes gambling, as he traipses in an addled stupor from Cannes to Austin to New York in search of that perfect act to put all his chips on, knowing full well that his odds at a roulette table would be just as good.
Director Harris has the most fun introducing the various acts on Unigram’s roster. There’s a Goldie-like drum-and-bass auteur (Osy Ikhile) who’s “gone Colonel Kurtz” recording an experimental second album; a squabbling bunch of Spice Girls wannabes; a hipper-than-thou Swedish indie band; and a debauched German dance producer (Moritz Bleibtreu) whose new song Steven describes as “the biggest insult to humanity since the Nazis cooed over the blueprints to Auschwitz.” He releases it as a single anyway.
But in the words of a British band whom Steven no doubt despises, that joke isn’t funny anymore — at least not beyond the film’s midway point. A little of Steven’s bilious voiceover ranting goes a long way, yet it continues wall-to-wall as he rapidly devolves from conniving douchebag to murderous monster, and the film’s lack of modulation ultimately proves deadening. A number of his quips hit the target — like describing a bashful indie-loving scout as “putting the ‘uh’ and ‘er’ in A&R” — but just as often they wallow in a tiresome tenor of try-hard transgressiveness, whipping out incest and HIV metaphors in a manner more pushy than shocking.
Even after Steven bumps off his direct competition, his path to the top is still complicated by his equally ambitious secretary (Georgia King); a rival exec (Tom Riley) who actually seems to have some aptitude for the job; and a shambling police investigator (supporting-cast standout Edward Hogg) who might be tempted to look the other way in exchange for a publishing contract. After exhausting most of its satirical energy, “Kill Your Friends” simply traces Steven’s race to the bottom of human depravity in its second half, growing more bloodily extreme and less interesting as it goes.
TV veteran Harris, here helming his first theatrical feature, is successful in fleshing out the steely sterility and neon-lit iniquity of Steven’s environs, and the film leaps along with a propulsive rhythm matched by its well-sourced Britpop-and-electronica soundtrack. But the sort of breathless, early Danny Boyle-style augmented reality that Harris seems to be straining for isn’t quite within his reach. Hoult, however, is icily convincing in his vampiric lead role, and if nothing else, his turn here and in “Mad Max: Fury Road” should ensure that his old child-actor parts will never again be listed in parentheses after his name.
Aside from a few musical and technological touchstones, the film rarely feels like a period piece, which represents something of a missed opportunity. The idea that the record industry is full of less-than-ethical figures is hardly a novel one — A Tribe Called Quest’s Rule No. 4080 sums up this film’s whole theme in five words — and never does “Kill Your Friends” tip its hand to the fact that this whole rotten edifice will very soon be brought down by a couple of computer geeks with a liberal reading of copyright law. Not that the name Napster would mean anything to these characters, but knowledge of its existence provides the only metatextual comeuppance most of these cretins ever get.