Ben Wheatley’s ‘Down Terrace’ Breathed New Life Into the British Gangster Film

Great British Movies is a column that’s all about what it says on the tin. In the first instalment, Council of Zoom’s Editor-in-Chief revisits Ben Wheatley’s sublime debut, Down Terrace.

Kitchen sink dramas and gangster films are as British as tea and biscuits. While it’s true that neither genre is exclusive to the United Kingdom, they have both played a massive role in shaping the nation’s cinematic identity throughout the years. That said, it’s rare to find a kitchen-sink drama that revolves around gangsters. And it’s even rarer to see a gangster movie that favours teas and biscuits over action and spectacle. That’s why Ben Wheatley‘s 2009 debut, Down Terrace, is a unique little gem.

Down Terrace is more fascinated with looking at the domestic lives of criminals than chronicling their exciting bank robberies and drug escapades. Guns do go off and one poor bloke gets his skull smashed with a hammer. But what are these outlaws like in their everyday life? How do they feel about clutter and mouldy wallpaper? These are the questions Wheatley’s film asks.

In fact, the crime family’s actual business is barely mentioned during the film. It’s established early on that they get up to no good, but the specifics of their illegal money-making exploits are ambiguous. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Wheatley said that he wanted audiences to suspect the worst about the family, rather than delve into their dealings.

“We [originally] wrote a script that was all about the ins and outs of drug-dealing. It was alright. But that’s not really what I was interested in making a film about.”

As is the case with most of Wheatley’s films, his debut feature saw him set out to subvert expectations and bring something new to the table. He accomplished this in spades with his Mike Leigh-meets-Quentin Tarantino take on gangster fare. And he did so without worrying about financial backers and all that malarkey.

Pragmatism was one of the main factors behind Down Terrace‘s low-key approach to the crime genre. Wheatley was an unproven director in 2009, known primarily for directing commercials, viral videos, and the odd bit of television. No major company was going to give him funding for a feature, so he set about forging his own path using the resources that he had at his disposal.

Wheatley and his team had access to a house and a small cast of actors. Money was practically non-existent. So he tapped Robin Hill to co-write a script that turned these limitations into an asset. A single-location, character-driven piece that disguised its budgetary constraints with strong writing and performances from talented folks. They knocked it out of the park.

Down Terrace revolves around Bill (Robert Hill), Karl (Robin Hill), and Maggie (Julia Deakin), a low-rent organised crime family who must contend with informants, corrupt politicians, and unexpected pregnancies. However, they mostly hang around the house, having laughs, getting into arguments, and playing folk music to take their minds off the bigger problems.

Much of the drama stems from the family trying to flush out the snitch who’s been getting them nicked. This leads to some moments of pure savagery that will satisfy viewers who need some bloodletting with their gangster films. But it’s the moments of everyday drama that give Down Terrace its charm. Whether that’s Karl’s parents bugging him to paint a room or bickering with his missus, the film’s depiction of mundane life is rooted in social realist traditions that aren’t far-fetched at all.

Down Terrace‘s examination of the British family unit is really on-point. Arguments happen over nothing and are forgiven just as quickly. Sometimes the tension festers and rears its ugly head again later on. Most families would have another blowout and eventually calm down. But Wheatley throws humour, guns, and criminal paranoia into the mix, which causes common bickering to erupt into more horrific scenarios.

The use of the (mostly) single-location setting and handheld cameras allows Wheatley and co. to create a tangible sense of claustrophobia throughout. It’s only a matter of time before the hobby hits the fan. But it’s comedic violence that ultimately stems from daily dysfunctions, which is classic Wheatley. He has a morbid sense of humour that’s present in most of his work, after all. Plenty of films employ savagery for laughs, but Wheatley does so in a way that’s both ghoulish and cheeky.

There are also some touching moments to alleviate the tension, not least the romantic bond between Karl and his girlfriend. As much as the film is out to probe the argumentative elements of daily life, it doesn’t ignore the tender moments either. This is especially noteworthy in the closing moments, which I won’t spoil for those of you haven’t seen it. Let’s just say that love can still exist in the heat of committing murder.

At its heart, Down Terrace is a wild family drama that occupies a sweet spot between the mundane and the mad. It’s a bloody musing on the conflicts that take place in most households, albeit with the volume turned up. Many people can relate to having overbearing parents who disapprove of their partners. We’ve all put off jobs our parents want us to do. And, sometimes, we collide with our loved ones simply because of differing ideals.

The film’s gangster tropes are also injected with a dose of kitchen-sink reality. Guns are bought from a dodgy bloke who works at the local market for 200 quid. Executions are carried out in caravan parks and the bodies are buried in fields above the town. Karl even makes one of his victims hold some cling film before he strikes the fatal blow. So that he doesn’t make a mess of the house he’s been instructed to clean. Crime in Down Terrace is an awkward struggle, as opposed to being something that’s made to look slick and easy.

It’s been 11 years since Down Terrace was released, and it still stands out as an original don among British gangster movies. It just goes to show that originality can go a long way. The fact the film exists at all also proves that filmmakers don’t need to break the bank to make a lasting impression. Wheatley has gone on to bigger and better things since then, and that’s because he took a risk on himself when no one else would have.