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Movie Review

Down Terrace

Down Terrace
Fatherhood is complicated. That's the message of veteran television and first-time feature director Ben Wheatley's "Down Terrace," a genuinely fresh and stylish black comedy–crime flick about father-and-son drug dealers. The film chronicles two weeks in the life of paranoid ex-hippie Bill (Robert Hill) and his underachieving adult son, Karl (co-writer and co-editor Robin Hill, real-life son of Robert Hill), who has been released from prison to find that an old girlfriend is pregnant. While maintaining its edge as a crime film, the film's heart lies in Karl's attempts to come to terms with becoming a father—a feat made particularly difficult considering that the fathers he's surrounded by are far from good role models. These include, aside from his own, the sluggish Garvy (Tony Way) and the hot-blooded, bumbling assassin Pringle (Michael Smiley). Meanwhile, Bill and his equally paranoid and conniving wife, Maggie (Julia Deakin), tirelessly struggle to figure out who in their inner circle informed on them, a query that points the finger—and gun—at just about everyone and ultimately resolves in a very Shakespearean manner.

What's amazing about "Down Terrace" is the interaction of its very finely executed parts, all of which conspire to highlight the emotionally real and quite strong performances by the Hills. A mock–cinéma vérité aesthetic, filled with inquisitive but restrained handheld camerawork, in conjunction with the often rapid and abrupt editing style, underscores the nature of this father and son whose relationship turns from love to hate with each successive cut. Perhaps the most nuanced performance is that of Robin Hill, who injects his role with equal parts brutishness and arrested development. In one scene, Karl searches for letters he had received from his pregnant ex, Varda (Kerry Peacock, Robin Hill's real-life wife), in prison. When he can't find them, he explodes. Though his voice gets deep with anger, each articulation is sprinkled with an almost indiscernible squeal; he is a 30-something child. This subtle juxtaposition of the hardened gangster with the frightened, insecure boy with daddy issues comes to define Karl's character arc. Maggie—the Lady Macbeth of our tale, whose hands, similarly, do not remain untainted—says, "It's not the decisions; it's the actions." This line defines Karl's quest. He is—to bring it back to Shakespeare—Hamlet trying to evolve from an indecisive child into a man of action—a transformation that comes to fruition in the film's final, tragic minutes.

But "Down Terrace" also has a sense of humor. Supporting characters create some of the film's most blissfully ironic moments. These include the dimwitted club manager Garvey, a man who says he should avenge his father's murder but "just doesn't feel like it." There's also Pringle, a bumbling assassin who brings his kids on hits, and who in one scene walks off of a job, leaving Bill and Karl with the complicated task of comforting a man who clearly knows that they had tried to have him killed.

Expertly constructed, the film's documentary cinematography, evocative editing, blues-folk–infused soundtrack, and powerful performances coalesce to create a film that is funny and thrilling, but one that does not, like so many of its contemporaries, sacrifice character in pursuit of such ends. 

Genre: Black Comedy/Crime. Written by: Ben Wheatley and Robin Hill. Directed by: Ben Wheatley. Starring Robert Hill, Robin Hill, Julia Deakin, David Schaal.

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