“Reboot” is a word bandied about so much in the film industry these days that its meaning has become entirely elastic, referring to anything from a sequel to a remake to a mildly delayed franchise chapter. A lo-fi, high-volume original character piece from Ben Wheatley, “Happy New Year, Colin Burstead” is none of these things — and yet, in the sense that a reboot describes a freshly started system following technical complications, it feels like one for this genre-roaming writer-director. After mixed returns for the dizzy formal chaos of his J.G. Ballard adaptation “High-Rise” and the vapid shoot-’em-up varnish of “Free Fire,” Wheatley’s restless study of a dysfunctional family reunited for a prickly New Year’s Eve party is a back-to-basics affair that rewardingly sets him back in the seasick domestic space of his debut “Down Terrace,” albeit with words as its only weapons this time.
Working without his usual writing partner Amy Jump, Wheatley has fashioned a rumbling, vinegary tragicomedy that, in its stripped formal spontaneity, resembles a latter-day nephew of the Dogme 95 movement. There’s a streak of Mike Leigh at his garrulous, too, in “Happy New Year, Colin Burstead” (understandably renamed from its more tonally suggestive shooting title “Colin You Anus”), which also appears to have drawn on Leigh’s semi-workshopped scripting technique. A screenplay credit cites additional material by the film’s large, bustling ensemble of top-form British character actors, headed by the excellent Neil Maskell (Wheatley’s lead in “Kill List”) as the titular protagonist and short-fused familial nerve center.
It’s all a far cry from the ranks of Brie Larson and Armie Hammer, and “Colin Burstead’s” vigorous talkfest may not translate far beyond the U.K., where, following limited theatrical appointments, it will be televised on the BBC over the December holiday season, before shifting to the broadcaster’s free-to-stream iPlayer service for a year. That’s a sharp bit of strategy for a film that should play perfectly as salty counter-programming to gloopier yuletide TV fare, at a time when all too many viewers will relate to the way Wheatley mordantly unpicks the perils of forced family gatherings.
Certainly, if anyone in the extended Burstead clan had any Christmas spirit to begin with, it has long left them by time December 31 rolls around. Nobody especially wants to attend the New Year’s festivities that eldest son Colin has arranged in a grand but gloomy seaside mansion rented just for the occasion, but a mixture of obligation, score-settling and good old-fashioned family guilt compels them all. Even at the arrivals stage, a litany of petty grudges and deeper-seated resentments are exposed between Colin, his tetchy, financially addled parents Sandy (Doon Mackichan) and Gordon (Bill Paterson), his well-meaning but unsung sister Gini (Hayley Squires) and his Flemish wife Val (Sura Dohnke), seemingly doing her best to stay on the fringes of the whole affair.
Most lines of conflict intersect at David (Sam Riley), Colin’s reckless, feckless younger brother: He has been frozen out of the family for the last five years, since disgracing himself in ways that become gradually (if none too surprisingly) apparent as the hour grows later, and the characters drunker. Arriving with his glamorous, straight-talking German wife Hannah (Alexandra Maria Lara), David is present only at the rash invitation of Gini, who regrets her gesture before he even turns up; rational behavior is not a staple of the holidays, and it has duly little place in these proceedings.
That’s just the inner circle of the squabbling storm, as Wheatley densely packs his 95-minute film with a not-so-merry-go-round of secondary tensions, set permanently on edge by the eerie, folky creak of Clint Mansell’s score. Along for the ride are ailing, cross-dressing uncle Bertie (Charles Dance); bewildered caterer Lainey (Sinead Matthews), who just happens to be Colin’s ex; David’s own fragile ex-wife Paula (Sarah Baxendale), Sham (Asim Chaudhry), an uninvited family friend in the throes of an existential manchild crisis; the posh milquetoast proprietor of the house (Richard Glover), and so on. Under the murky disco lights, all these individuals’ problems blur and meld into a general boozy fug of anxiety, with a shot of Brexit-related discord thrown in just to de-sweeten the pill a little more. Many a British viewer will wince in pained recognition.
There are perhaps more balls aloft here than the script can strictly juggle: Joe Cole and Peter Ferdinando are among the fine actors wasted as guests whose status in the family never comes fully into focus, while the collective hand-wringing over David leaves other intriguingly fraught relationships unexplored in the melee. Then again, a bit of muffled, muttering confusion goes with the thematic territory here. Working with natural light and a whole lot of natural shadow, Laurie Rose’s roving handheld camera slinks between rooms like a forgotten party guest trying to find a place (or at least a place to hide) in the action, catching disrupted snippets of conversation and peripheral angst along the way. Likewise, Wheatley’s editing is deceptive in its casual fragmentation, carefully assembling half-revelations to make more sense of Colin’s misguided hosting as we progress.
It’s no surprise to learn that Wheatley is currently developing a TV series around this gaggle of characters that will presumably untangle some of the tormented arcs only teased at here. If “Happy New Year, Colin Burstead” is an extended pilot, however, it’s a pleasingly cinematic one: unresolved and ragged with small open wounds, but self-contained in its fevered, filling-to-burst energy. Suitably claustrophobic as an angry chamber piece, the film nonetheless feels, after the more elaborate, hyper-cool genre stylings of its director’s recent work, like a gasp of cold coastal air. “Let the storm wash the plates,” one character says of the raging evening that lies ahead; true enough, at the end of this experiment, the clattering crockery of Wheatley’s filmmaking emerges bone-clean.