As a rule of thumb, the most popular mob movies in American culture worship the cynical intersection of crime, commerce, and power as an inevitably superior factor in the world—the secret way of society that every normal citizen would die to be a part of. The Godfather, Goodfellas, The Sopranos—by and large, we’re meant to come away from these with a sense of awe over how the characters seem to have it made, threat of a federal indictment or not.
Down Terrace (which you can stream on Netlfix here), the directorial debut of English filmmaker Ben Wheatley, is not like that. The story of a family connected to organized crime in a sleepy London suburb, Down Terrace shows an unglamorous side of English life and how the ruthlessness of the criminal way leads to a depressing end game. At the beginning, we’re introduced to Bill and Karl, a father and son who appear to have just returned home to a cramped townhouse from a trial related to some unknown business. Slowly, the details begin to trickle in through offhand dialogue and vignette: Bill and Karl are a part of some criminal organization, as is the matriarch Maggie, and a coterie of frumpy-looking friends and family members. Over the next two weeks, a period of time clearly marked off by the titles that announce what day it is, they begin to slowly piece together who might’ve tipped off their activities to the authorities, while dealing with the turmoil in their personal lives. Karl’s one-time girlfriend turns up, apparently pregnant; a criminal associate from the greater syndicate London drives in to warn them about getting into further trouble. People start dying by accident, and then as a matter of necessity. There’s never an indication that Bill and Karl, despite their connections, are in any position of control, or on a level to dictate their lives. They’re mostly just trying to avoid jail, which can be its own singular motivation.
It isn’t always easy to follow along, and you might want to turn on the subtitles to catch the narrative nuances that quickly flash by. Wheatley approaches his story like a modern John Cassavetes, using incidental interaction and overlapping dialogue to describe what’s going out without ever explicitly stating so. The atmosphere of non-happening can be annoying, until the uneventfulness is broken by any number of silly jokes. But the flip effect is that when something does happen, it comes so abruptly as to be genuinely shocking. Somewhat tellingly, there’s a deep divide in critical and audience reception on Rotten Tomatoes—84% vs. 56%—which can often be the mark of a movie that isn’t much fun to watch as it is to think about. But the action slowly speeds up towards a shocking conclusion, and I think it all congeals into something uniquely entertaining, if not the strong first effort of a director who seems destined to make a great film. (His second movie, Kill List, keeps a lot of his stylistic conventions and adds a Satanic conspiracy; unfortunately, it’s not on Netflix.)
By contrast, This is England (available for streaming on Netflix here) uses the grimy side of the U.K. to explore British cool and bigotry, as seen through the eyes of a precocious 11-year old named Shaun who just wants to feel a part of something. When we meet him, he’s getting teased on all ends—by the teenagers who hang out in front of the convenience store and by the boys at school who mock the death of his father—and is living the angry, reclusive life of any neglected adolescent. But by altruistic chance, he falls in with a group of young punks with off-kilter nicknames, who immediately initiate him into their gang for no reason other than to make him feel better.
After the first real time they all hang out, Shaun declares it to be the best day of his life. And it’s easy to see what’s appealing: Milky’s sideburns, Woody’s casual cheekiness, the lovingly tender haircuts administered by Lol, that they’ve got nothing to do but get pissed and go on adventures. It’s a group any young gun would hope to be like, an aspirational viewing experience by the time the full gang strolls through the yard in slow motion. (A technique that’s never failed to confer loads of swagger onto its recipients; see Reservoir Dogs, the opening of Dr. Dre’s “The Next Episode” video.)
Because we can’t be stuck in a fulfillment fantasy for an hour and a half, it quickly turns sour at a party. Just as Shaun is receiving his first real initiation into manhood—going off for a makeout walk with the carefree punkette Smell, who says “Do you want to suck on my tits?” to this 11-year old boy with all the nonchalance of a McDonald’s clerk asking if you want fries with that—a friend named Combo (Stephen Graham, who you’ll recognize from Guy Pearce’s early movies) shows up, fresh off a stint in jail. Right away, the vibe goes bad, and not just because the former gangleader is insistent on throwing his weight around. He tries to recruit everyone into the still-surviving National Front political movement, which hid racism and bigotry behind the guise of nationalism—and, unsurprisingly, he finds that more than a few members of Woody’s crew, including Shaun, are easily swayed by his emotional grandstanding and talks of “country first.”
The movie turns ugly, but not without a gentle hand. Though there’s nothing but disgust to watch as Combo slowly manipulates Shaun and his followers into committing racist acts, it’s clear what his newfound political leanings have been created by: an overwhelming sense of failure, powerlessness, loneliness, and every other neurosis in the bag. The group’s descent into bigotry is spurred by personal inadequacy, but without the self-awareness to look inward and fix themselves, they’ve chosen to blame the rest of the world. In another world, therapy might have helped. As part of a generation and socioeconomic demographic ignored by the state, there’s no other recourse but to lash out.
There’s a scene early on when Shaun goes shopping for boots to make him a real lad; it’s hinted at that his single mother can’t afford the iconic Doc Martens, which means he’s got to settle for a lesser-known brand. The saleswoman tries to sell it by noting that the boots come “from London,” which immediately impresses Shaun as an instant marker of quality. It’s like in Down Terrace, when the appearance of an associate fron London is the first hint that there’s a bigger, more powerful world out there. But when you’re separated from it by everything—geography, class, birthright—all you can hope is to figure out the place you’re in for the time being.
Queued Up is a bi-monthly column where we sift through Netflix’s Watch Instantly archives in search of little-known gems, forgotten wonders, and plain old classics worth revisiting. For more, go here, here, and here.