Psychopaths in Film – Down Terrace
After covering one of Ben Wheatley’s other films, Kill List, we will now turn to the film he did prior to this, Down Terrace, since it also deals with some pretty dark and depraved subjects matters and contains as many or even more psychopathic characters than even Kill List!
The film centers around a father and son, Bill and Karl, played by Robert and Robin Hill respectively, who have recently narrowly escaped a conviction for undisclosed crimes. Their first aim upon acquittal is to find the “rat” who reported them to the authorities, and as their search for whoever betrayed them deepens, so does the suspicion and paranoia among the family and the close circle of friends in the crime family.
Julia Deakin plays Maggie, wife to Bill and mother to Karl, in a spiky, snarly role which takes unexpected turns. Michael Smiley, David Schaal, and Tony Way play Eric, Pringle and Garvey, three close by hangers on who help with the running of the family’s shady business dealings but later turn into suspects as mistrust and paranoia grows.
The film contains a dark, dry humor for which Wheatley is well know for in his films as well as a social realist filming style which makes conversations seem very down to earth and believable. There is no polished camera work or cheesy cliched crime script lines you will find in Hollywood films and the film has a realistic quality which makes it more effective and engaging.
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Typical Psychopathic Traits
The film does contain some more obvious, cut and dried depictions of violent psychopathy, and the film has that cliched atmosphere of “can’t trust anyone” and “who’s gonna be next” as Bill’s suspicion deepens. He is a psuedo-intellectual former hippie, often articulate and considered, but still deeply psychopathic and paranoid, happy to have supposed friends killed without knowing if they are truly guilty.
Of all the characters Tony Schaal’s Eric is the most obviously and bluntly psychopathic, killing people for fun and constantly making a joke out of the tragedy and misery they are creating in other people’s lives.
In one scene Bill tries to intellectualize the consequences of what they are about to do on someone’s family. “Still, it’s the way it goes, a lot of children die”. “What time is it?” Eric bluntly responds, cutting off any line of thought that borders remotely on dealing with the emotional consequences of their actions.
This is typical of a psychopath and a clever depiction of the sense of them constantly fleeing from even the most superficial understanding of concepts like empathy, emotion, conscience, and placing themselves in the shoes of people they are harming with their actions.
Elsewhere Pringle is another clearly psychopathic and aggressive character, an ex army guy who takes pleasure out of talking about all things violent and sadistic. We don’t see him do much in this film but we see an underlying aggression in his character, offering to “take care” of any suspects and even joking that his little son got into a fight in nursery.
Later on in the film Julia Deakin’s Maggie character also takes some interesting turns, with an initially respectable veneer coming off and revealing a more toxic, ruthless side to her character as well. There is a contemptous sneer which appears on her face at certain moments which gives away a certain mindset and as the film progresses it appears as though it is her, and not her husband Bill, who is the brains behind this little crime operation.
The violence which does occur in the film is clinical in it’s depiction of psychopathy, with people being dispatched coldly and without remorse. You get a sense here of people who have learnt to not feel anymore through killing so many times and can now just do it like they would turn on a light switch.
Psychological Abuse in the Film
Alongside the more obvious depictions of physical violence in the film though, there is also an undertone of psychological cruelty and violence, particularly towards the son Karl. He is constantly berated and put down by his father in particular and his parents speak to and about him in confusing and contradictory ways.
There is also a consistent motif through the film of him being an unwanted son. This is implicit throughout the film in the way he is treated, and even explicity brought out in several scenes, including one where Karl is looking through some old family picture albums from when he was young.
“I think that’s my foot”, he dryly remarks, in reference to the fact that this is the only evidence of him ever existing in the photo album. “I should be all over this album”, he points out. The subtext here is that they never included him in photos because they never really wanted him.
Bill attempts to rationalize again and claim that photos “were expensive in those days”.”There’s loads of pictures in here” Karl correctly points out in response. The suspicion that Karl was an unwanted kid is later confirmed when Maggie admits to Bill “I liked it best when it was just me and you”.
Into this toxic dynamic enters Kerry Peacock’s Valda character, Karl’s now pregnant girlfriend who actually appears as a force of sanity and reason in Karl’s life. She is the only person in the film who appears to stand up for Karl, noticing his talents and traits and pointing out the abusive and demeaning attitude Bill in particular has towards his son.
Karl is initially wary of the fact she is pregnant, but Valda stays “with” him psychologically despite his goofyness and outbursts of anger and out of this Karl develops an affection for her and starts to see the dysfunctionality and madness in his own family.
We have admittedly used some selective editing and creative license here, since Karl himself also murders someone with a hammer without any real provocation. From that point on he is arguably just as implicated as the rest of them, though at least he begins to see the madness and toxicity around him and tries to withdraw from it.
“I don’t wanna do this anymore”, he later pleads with his mother “I just wanna be a normal dad”. Maggie responds by slapping him across the face and telling him he’ll “do as he’s told”. The abusive dynamic and “rule by fear” nature of the family is by then pretty obvious and Karl and Valda decide to go to extreme lengths to break free of it.
A Great Independent Film
Down Terrace is an excellent independent film, which was made on small budget but is nevertheless captivating and entertaining, highlighting Ben Wheatley’s ability to do a lot with a little. He uses the small budget to the film’s advantage, with the most of it being filmed in a cramped terraced house, which adds to the already claustrophobic and tense atmosphere created by the paranoia and suspicion of the main characters.
As with some of his other films such as Kill List, it also has a multi layered, intelligent plot which demands repeat viewing to fully unpack. On one level it can be seen as purely a realist crime drama with some no nonsense, brutal violence; yet looking closer there are also clever psychological motifs and subtexts which speak to toxic and emotionally abusive family dynamics.
Ben Wheatley also has a distinctly dry and dark humour which underpins most of his films, which stands in direct opposition to a lot of cliched, interchangeable, mainstream “mush”, which can infect even the crime genre. He and his partner Amy Jump are very singular and individualistic film makers and their films are recommended viewing for anyone likes something a bit different and doesn’t mind a bit of violence thrown in there.
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