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Down Terrace
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by Jay Seaver

"A crime family that actually feels like a family."
4 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2010: A lot of gangster movies want you to know that they aren't just about crime, but about family. You can't miss it, they're so formal and insistent that it becomes overbearing. "Down Terrace", while it has other flaws, manages to present us with a family that are also a group of criminals, and makes the situation work.

Bill (Robert Hill) sells drugs in a mid-sized English city; he's been doing so for over forty years now and doesn't appreciate that he's just had to spend a few days in court because of it. He figures it was probably Garvey (Tony Way), the manager of his club, who sold him out, so he and his son Karl (Robin Hill) are going to take care of it. The thing is, Bill is really much more interested in drugs than enforcement, and the muscle he brings in, Pringle (Michael Smiley), is distracted by his kid. Speaking of kids, Karl's ex-girlfriend Valda (Kerry Peacock) has just shown up and announced she's pregnant. Bill's wife Maggie (Julia Deakin) just wants all this drama out of her house.

There have been a ton of crime-family comedies, but I have a hard time recalling any that reflect the very ordinariness of family relationships as well as Down Terrace. Nobody lectures each other on what a family does; they just do it, for better or worse. Bill could run a brewery, and it wouldn't change the characters' relationships a great deal, other than the product they enjoy as they kick back in the evening. Every bit of the relationships between Bill, Karl, and Maggie rings true, from Karl's combination of comfort and boredom as Bill repeats a story about the old days, to how Maggie has learned through long experience what her husband needs to do but can't, to how Valda is just not going to ingratiate herself quickly at all (which naturally leads to some nasty arguments).

Of course, they aren't just another family; their family business is criminal, which leads to murder and betrayal. The way the film plays the extremes is frequently hilarious - one extended sequence has a killing seemingly stymied by the characters being unwilling to break through a door; a later bit is murder as broad slapstick. As the film goes on, the paranoia takes up more of the film's time, and while it's still primarily driven by family issues, but outside factors start to have more of an effect; when a representative of the larger outfit in London shows up, one starts to get the feeling that the filmmakers are making things more complicated than need be.

(Another sign that things are starting to drag is when it starts to repeat title cards. Down Terrace uses days as chapters, starting with "Monday", and as a rule of thumb, once you start recycling them, the story starts to feel much longer than it actually is. Seeing a second "Monday" indicates coming full circle; a second "Tuesday" makes you wonder just how long this is going to get dragged out!)

The cast is uniformly good. I kind of love Robert Hill as father Bill; he's the very model of a hippie who has gotten old, cranky, and suburban without realizing it. He's not wistful when he thinks or talks about the past, because in his mind he's still that guy, even if he'll be reaming his son out as a disappointment later in the scene. Still, he isn't quite as abrasive as Julia Deakin's Maggie, a bitter woman who displays a fantastically limited world-view but an utter ruthlessness within it. Robin Hill captures Karl marvelously: Potentially smart, but lazy, thinking he's suffered more than he actually has, but not playing up obvious mannerisms. His tantrums are pathetic and humorous for it, although just disturbing enough that they're not entirely comedic. Kerry Peacock does a good job of emphasizing how Valda serves two purposes for the audience, as the outsider who is a bit of a straight woman in the odd situation and as the interloper whom Bill and Maggie find threatening.

Co-writer/director Ben Wheatley is working on what appears to be a very limited budget, but when you've got such a good cast you don't need very much else Although the film has a few pacing issues, it manages to create an atmosphere which makes most other crime family movies, whether they be comedic or dramatic, feel stilted and awkward.

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originally posted: 04/28/10 14:13:02
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: Fantastic Fest 2009 For more in the Fantastic Fest 2009 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Dallas International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Dallas International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Independent Film Festival Boston 2010 For more in the Independent Film Festival Boston 2010 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Los Angeles Film Festival For more in the 2010 Los Angeles Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Seattle International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Seattle International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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  15-Oct-2010 (R)
  DVD: 18-Jan-2011


  DVD: 18-Jan-2011

Directed by
  Ben Wheatley

Written by
  Robin Hill
  Ben Wheatley

  Robin Hill
  Bob Hill
  Julia Deakin
  Tony Way
  Michael Smiley
  Kerry Peacock

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