The Father of my Children isn’t the only film at this year’s New Directors/New Films festival to offer viewers two parts of varying quality; like Mia Hansen-Løve’s diptych, Ben Wheatley’s Down Terrace follows up a strong first half with a rather less productive second act. Charting two weeks in the lives of a father-and-son gangster team who have just returned from a prison bid, the film unfolds as a series of deadpan exchanges between the two, their wife/mother, and various associates who pop in, the action confined almost entirely to the expansive family home. Although bits of plot wedge their way in (the pair’s speculation about the informer who ratted them out, a pregnant ex-girlfriend of the son who resurfaces), much of the first half is simply spent in idle conversation, having fun establishing the domestic dynamic between the bullying, philosophizing father, passive-aggressive son, and long-suffering mother, as well as the quirky cast of supporting players.
The ragged, off-the-cuff feel enhanced by Wheatley’s darting handheld camera, the family spends their time boozing, playing acoustic guitar, flipping through photo albums and waxing reflective on past mystical drug experiences. There’s plenty that’s funny here (often riffing on the conventions of gangster behavior, as when one associate whines that, while he knows he’s supposed to avenge his father’s death, he “just doesn’t feel like it”), but given its ultra-dry delivery by actors who tend to swallow their words, it’s more The Dumb Waiter than Pulp Fiction or The Sopranos (the work it’s being most frequently compared to).
It’s a rather limited approach. More the stuff of half-hour sitcoms than feature-length films, Down Terrace begins to lose momentum around the start of the second week, which is when Wheatley shifts gears, introducing a darker tone amid the comedy, interjecting more in the way of plot and sprinkling the proceedings with sudden bursts of brutal, if vaguely comic, violence. As the body count rises, it gives rise to a sort of absurdist humor which is more cynical but considerably less funny than its deadpan first-half counterpoint, while modest attempts at ringing pathos from its characters, as when Wheatley’s camera picks out the mother crying to the somber strains of “Scarborough Fair,” mostly strike the wrong note. With the director slowing the pacing considerably, the snappiness of the first act which ensured that no bit outlasted its welcome becomes a distant memory, as the project gets swallowed up in the effort to turn an amusing collection of comic riffs into something meaty enough to fill out a 90-minute running time.