The thinly sketched characters of The Riot Club, members of a prestigious Oxford dining society, are numerous and inconsequential, with director Lone Scherfig giving sparse attention to humanizing or deepening them. Laura Wade’s adaptation of her own 2010 play, Posh, begins with a throwaway prologue, set within a faux-Restoration period, in which an aristocratic type happens upon his wife having sex with Lord Riot (Harry Lloyd). Cut to present-day Oxford, where Miles (Max Irons) and Alistair (Sam Claflin) are “freshers” and soon-to-be Riot Clubbers. The film’s first third is devoted to trifling exposition that narrowly glimpses character motivations and broadly juxtaposes various types against one another. Miles is sensitive and caring, while Alistair is contemptuous and petty. The other clubbers receive similarly adjectival treatment, including Hugo (Sam Reid), a senior member, whose sexual attraction to Miles prompts his interest in recruiting the otherwise unremarkable candidate. When one character chimes in early on that being at Oxford is “like being invited to 100 parties at once,” it’s but a glib suggestion. Unlike The Social Network, with its virtuoso use of parallel editing to enact fraternal fantasy, The Riot Club is content to stagnantly dramatize its narrative stakes.
Character deficiencies translate to tepid interactions too, with Miles’s courting of Lauren (Holliday Grainger), a Welsh student, relegated to sexual rendezvous peppered with innocuous pillow talk. Lauren’s mentioning of bank bailouts speaks to her working-class roots, though Wade’s script simply constructs these convictions in relation to Miles’s potentially “posh” status. These matters are rerouted through the film’s underlying presumptions of masculinity, where Alastair’s more tactile penchants are contrasted by Hugo’s effete homosexuality. Thus, Miles is neither beefcake nor dandy, but well-tempered, levelheaded, and straight. The Riot Club invites such crude conceptualizations through its own comparisons, cultivating representational concerns not just through character behaviors, but also the filmmakers’ noxiously overt treatment of these Raskolnikovian types, whose philosophical belief in their autonomy separate from societal mores is left unmoored by the film’s passive criticisms.
The final third is largely set within the confines of a gastropub, where a dinner gone awry leads to a violent beating of the pub’s owner and a tormenting of Lauren by the clubbers. Wade’s script tips into outright condemnation in this sequence, horrified at how self-professed society types can furrow so quickly into an embrace of their most base and violent appetites. Yet that outrage stems from nothing the film has prepared prior, which has been largely reliant on instances of drunken puking and character asides, including one theory about Harry Potter being gay. If Wade is arguing for the failure of class-consciousness, fostered by the Tory governments regaining of political power, those stakes aren’t adequately drawn. If the scene, on the other hand, is a gesture to The Last House on the Left and a sense that the pretentions of privilege can be dissolved when faced with unthinkable trauma, then it unfolds with too calculated an aim and, furthermore, is botched by the paltry dramatics, where the incorrect preparation of a meal stands in for the murder of one’s own daughter. The Riot Club is finally an ill-conceived takedown of nepotism-bred, violently inclined conservatism.