A low-rent spin on the white-collar hedonism of American Psycho, Kill Your Friends satirizes the excesses of the British music industry in the very moments before the business was upended by the likes of Napster and the iPod. The film’s Patrick Bateman type is A&R rep Steven Stelfox (Nicholas Hoult), whom director Owen Harris shoots as a nihilistic corporate vampire. The character speaks in direct address to the camera in self-aggrandizing tones, and his warped worldview becomes suffocating within minutes. The film’s opening shot asks us to admire his leather shoes as he gives a lecture about his power to influence the music that the public gets to hear. A few minutes later, Steven’s pissing over the body of a co-worker, Waters (James Corden), he’s attempted to murder in order to put himself in line for a promotion. Then a dog pops into the frame to lap at the urine.
By this moment, it’s clear that Kill Your Friends is a film for those critics The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum has referred to as “bad fans.” Steven’s moral depravity should fuel the film’s satire, but Harris suffuses the character’s worldview with an endless barrage of stylistic tricks, allowing the antihero a degree of aesthetic authority as he demeans women, makes AIDS jokes, and rattles off lists of things he hates. Harris reopens the toolkit of early Danny Boyle pyrotechnics, breaking both the fourth wall and the 180-degree rule with a camera that crawls over buxom women and countertops filthy with cocaine dust. Steven’s substance-fueled nihilism has little do with greed, talent, or envy. As he reads a book called Unleashing Your Monster, he appears to be motivated more by notions of power and masculine prowess.
Despite its eager and largely predictable ruptures of continuity, Kill Your Friends isn’t quite as dumb as Steven. The film’s post-Britpop setting is faithfully drawn, with its legions of musical niches (girl groups, both pop and industrial electronica, hip-hop) competing for market share. Steven’s cluelessness in the wake of this chaotic cultural moment can be funny: The film repeatedly cites his lack of talent and intelligence even as it smothers us in his misdeeds. As Steven murders and schemes his way to the top of a dying business model, his failures as a killer, recruiter, and promoter are legion, and a few clever subplots emerge. A suspicious police investigator (Edward Hogg) attempts to blackmail him into a gig in the record industry, and Steven’s secretary (Georgia King) also finds him ripe for exploitation. Steven’s most interesting rival is a competing A&R rep (Tom Riley) whose success appears to be based on both professional acumen and a simple aura of kindness.
That these plot strands fail to upend Steven’s gruesome narrative is unsurprising. Thanks to a strong performance by Hoult, all reptilian sinew and heroin-chic vacuity, Kill Your Friends keeps threatening to become more dynamic and self-critical than its final result: a few puddles of blood and the rise of a pre-fab pop group. The object of Harris and Niven’s criticism never comes quite into relief. The music-industry angle proves toothless and nostalgic, merely an excuse for a good soundtrack, and the repeated idea that Steven sees a threat to his masculinity remains simultaneously laughable and undeveloped. The film’s failed satire can’t help but bolster Steven’s antihero charisma. At his lowest, he crawls toward a television airing Radiohead’s “Karma Police” video, mouthing the lyrics to the song as the image of Thom Yorke sings back to him. Steven becomes a moron that looks like a martyr. The sequence, almost brilliant in its blunt stupidity, is Kill Your Friends at its best.