Hidden away in an unassuming corner of Bermondsey, Roxy Bar & Screen is one of London’s best-kept cinema secrets. It’s an intimate screen which seats cinemagoers in a lounge bar setting, blurring the lines between pub and screen with an easy effortlessness. And it’s a trove for film geeks, programming a stonking selection of double-bills or classics. One such night was held last week: a double bill of Ben Wheatley’s acclaimed first two films, Down Terrace (2009) and Kill List (2011), with short introductions from two of the stars from both films (Michael Smiley and Neil Maskell).
Wheatley has had quite a career trajectory. The Essex-born director began his career making virals for brands like Innocent smoothies, then worked on superb CGI sketch show The Wrong Door (get it in your LOVEFiLM queue) before stepping into the big screen in 2009 with no-budget crime thriller Down Terrace. Shot in a week, the budgetary constraints on Wheatley’s debut are sometimes painfully obvious, and it occasionally feels a little lacking visually (most scenes are set in one claustrophobic Brighton house), but it gets along with a streak of devilish humour and a superbly unpredictable script.
It follows a family criminal enterprise, as a father and son, recently released from prison for an unnamed crime, are both driven by suspicion and paranoia into a series of increasingly brutal murders. Down Terrace shares much DNA with early work from the Coen Brothers or Martin Scorsese in its canny ability to flit between sharp, biting dialogue and surprising, savage violence, and Wheatley assembles a rock-solid ensemble cast of familiar British faces, not a weak link among them.
Down Terrace is a sturdy first entry. But watching them back-to-back, there’s no doubt which is the better film, and Kill List makes leaps and bounds, not just in budget, but in the gravity and tone of the subject matter. Wheatley’s sophomore entry glides from kitchen sink drama to crime thriller to occultist horror in a way so seamless you will be hard pushed to notice how. Kill List’s tone is angry and brooding, an oblique comment on contemporary British society in the wake of a devastating recession. It’s shocking and sometimes appalling, so will not be for everyone, but really it ought to be: it’s one of the best films this country has produced in years. As many have rightly said, Kill List is also a film which rewards unfamiliarity. The less you know, the more you will take from it, so the less said about it here, the better – just see it.