The idea behind the drama "Down Terrace" is to lure the viewer in gradually, constructing a deceptively commonplace depiction of dysfunction within a family of criminals that meticulously, glacially spirals out of control. The architecture of the feature is incredible, slithering around troubled characters desperate to contain domestic control. However, the madness doesn't provide much of an electric charge until very late in the game, making the first two acts of the picture an incredible test of endurance for anyone not utterly devoted to the throttled fury of British kitchen sink dramas.
Fresh from a stint in prison, Karl (Robin Hill, who also co-wrote the script) has returned home for comfort and questioning, facing an imposing, hypercritical force in his father, Bill (Robin's father, Robert Hill). With a few cracks forming in the family's criminal control, Bill and Karl tear into their associates, including hitmen and couriers, looking for the foolish soul who turned on the family. In this waiting game, tempers flare between father and son, revealing a sea of resentment, brought to a boil by the sudden appearance of Karl's pregnant girlfriend (Kerry Peacock), with a question of paternity driving Bill to the edge.
Filling in the gaps left behind by such directors as Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, and Shane Meadows, "Down Terrace" feels too self-aware, too programmed to swell the senses. The picture marks the feature-film directing debut of Ben Wheatley, who retains a commendable concentration on the nuances of behavior and psychopathic reaction. It's a semi-improvisational peek at an unusual family in an unusual crisis, with decades of bitterness and disappointment coming to a head over the course of one brutal week. Wheatley has a workable idea for a film and a distinct approach that requires the viewer to grow accustom to the protracted construction of a narrative noose, staying invested in these long minutes as the director indulges his actors as a way of misdirection.
I can't argue with the mighty, inflamed performances, with each actor contributing a sickening beat of betrayal as the family goes from a unified front to a viper's nest of accusations and unspeakable acts of violence. The acting is refined when called upon, offering Wheatley's camera plenty of behavioral business to cover. When the film finally strikes, it makes an unnerving impression, due in great part to the measured work from the ensemble, with added poison emerging from the troupe's real life relationships.
The AVC encoded image (2.35:1 aspect ratio) presentation displays a bizarre color scheme that tends to drain out the vibrancy of the skintones and highlight the warmer colors of the house interiors. It seems a purposeful choice, but it takes a few beats to get used to, looking at times like a B&W film that's been colorized. Detail is comfortable throughout the film, with the limited scope of the drama afforded some light grain to bring texture to the characters and the domestic atmosphere. Close-ups are handsome and energetic, while exteriors communicate blustery seasonal changes.
The 5.1 DTS-HD sound mix takes a very modest, simple listening experience and opens it up with a decent amount of dimension. Dialogue exchanges are dramatic, with all the various voices permitted a crisp read on the mix, with hushed and shouted encounters balanced comfortably, without expected shrillness. Musical performances are enjoyably natural, capturing the organic echo of the room. Violence pops are effectively shocking, offering the mix a few snaps of blunt action that compliment the tension.
English SDH and Spanish subtitles are offered.
The feature-length audio commentary with co-writer/director Ben Wheatley and co-writer/editor/star Robin Hill offers the "Down Terrace" fan exactly what they've come for. Armed with a jocular attitude and an interest in delivering hard facts about the filming process, the duo provide an informative conversation, genuinely enjoying the opportunity to break the picture down and explain their motivations and struggles. Pointing out improvisations and casting choices, the pair investigate the hurried pace of the production, while discussing happy accidents and thematic reach. It's an amusing and involving listen.
"Acting Screen Test" (:57) showcases an early attempt to see if Robin Hill and Robert Hill shared any on-screen chemistry.
"Like Father, Like Son Camera Tests" (4:04) looks to be a collection of filmed rehearsals, displaying the developing look of the feature.
"Bill Talks about the '60s'" (9:49) is an extended scene feature the patriarch recalling his days with drugs and idealism.
"Bill and the Toad" (4:55) is a deleted scene highlighting the cast dealing with a toad who loves the comfort of milk.
"Tricks of the Amazing Wizards!" (7:57) is a collection of macabre gags that employ crafty special effects.
"Rob Loves Kerry" (9:43) is a short film from 2000 spotlighting early antics from the "Down Terrace" cast.
And a Festival Trailer has been included.
Ultimately, I had difficulty trusting this film and lost faith that it was headed somewhere worth following. Wheatley has his way with shock value, but there's a diluted feel of purpose to the picture, the director mistaking mind-numbing stasis for penetrating characterization. There should be a thrilling feeling of claustrophobia to the mix, as we're trapped inside a home of disarming lunatics beginning to feast upon each other, but it's all more of a staring contest that requires repeated rebooting to keep matters moving forward. There's no flow to "Down Terrace," despite the occasional flash of brilliance.