Fantasia 2010: Down Terrace

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Down Terrace
Directed by Ben Wheatley

A good movie that could very easily have been a great one, Down Terrace, a very black comedy with a dash of arthouse ambition, has all the ingredients necessary for a truly distinctive feature but bungles the proportions, making for a peculiar viewing experience – one worth partaking in, provided a strong inclination towards gallows humor.

Writer-director Ben Wheatley is already somewhat of a commodity in his native UK thanks to a BBC comedy series he created, The Wrong Door, and his comedic pedigree certainly shows through here. Terrace, his first feature, revolves around a clan of two-bit criminals whose professional ties might actually be stronger than their blood ties. Father Bill (Robert Hill) and son Karl (Robin Hill, Robert’s real-life son and the film’s co-writer) are fresh off of a stint in the clink, and on the lookout for whoever it was that ratted them out in the first place. Further complicating matters is the sudden arrival of Karl’s girlfriend/prison “pen pal” (Kerry Peacock), who has re-emerged after a six-month absence, very pregnant. (Her entrance provides one of the funniest moments you’ll see in any film this year.) Before long, suspicions are raised left and right, and a set of gruesome but to-the-point dispatchings are in order.

Down Terrace shares DNA with the likes of Shallow Grave and Fargo, but it’s held back from greatness by a few fairly crippling problems. First, Wheatley’s background as a comedy director makes itself very apparent in the film’s amusing first half-hour, in which very little happens except for Bill and Karl’s verbal sparring, as well as comic jabs at the supporting characters, who are uniformly, and deliberately, shabby figures. The brief scenes are so effective as low-key comedy, in fact, that the attempts to establish the tortured family dynamic needed to make the film’s back half really click are drowned out in a sea of comic snippets – they provide laughs but actually distract from the setup’s most compelling relationships.

What does shine through despite the muddled execution, however, are two standout performances: the elder Hill, who essays Robert effectively as a man who is both patently ridiculous and palpably mournful for a misspent life, and Julia Deakin (best known as Marsha on Spaced) as his long-suffering but steadfast wife Maggie. (Deakin’s note-perfect reading of a key line colors and significantly deepens the entire film.) Deakin and Hill manage to bring fully-formed human beings to life even as the film that contains them remains sketchy and inconsistent throughout. A missed opportunity, then, but one that ushers in Wheatley as a promising new voice who could well produce a staggering feature in the very near future.

Simon Howell

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