Stop me if you’ve heard this pitch before: a sociopathic schemer with a tendency toward hedonistic behavior rises through the ranks of their job because of their moral bankruptcy. Yes, well, Kill Your Friends, showing at the 2016 Boston Underground Film Festival, is pretty much that. It’s another film in the Machiavellian, nihilistic, fourth-wall breaking canon established by American Psycho and recently imitated in films like Filth and the Netflix series House of Cards.
Are we witnessing the birth of a new subgenre? Perhaps. However, it’s more interesting to consider where this newfound interest is coming from. Rising wealth inequality? General dislike of the rich and powerful?
Whatever the case, the fact remains that audiences that have seen any of the aforementioned films or TV will be privy to how Kill Your Friends may play out. In this case, it’s not a scheming cop nor an investment banker yuppie, but an A&R man named Steven Stelfox (Nicholas Hoult) who will stop at nothing to succeed in his field. Stelfox schemes, kills, and schmoozes; he seems invincible until legal forces and bad decisions combine to throw a wrench in his grand plans.
Set amidst the Britpop craze in mid-’90s London, Kill Your Friends makes the case that the world of record labels is cutthroat, both literally and figuratively, with every decision having the potential to sink your career in the blink of an eye. Compound that with a culture that seems to necessitate heavy drug use, and you’ve got the simultaneous forces of implosion and explosion working to make or break fortunes and careers. Everyone in the film is tense because everyone on the film is constantly uncertain, and what better way is there to beat down uncertainty than some booze and a few lines of cocaine?
One of the problems with Kill Your Friends is that it’s far too dependent on the films that precede it. American Psycho, in particular, is practically the template for a scene in which the Huey Lewis and the News monologue is replaced with one about singer-songwriter Paul Weller, and much of the film has this problem. There’s a pervading feeling of familiarity with what you’re seeing on screen, and for all it’s execution, it never quite makes the kind of impact that American Psycho did — there’s just no greater cultural relevance.
On the other hand, it’s executed pretty well. The script, written by John Niven and based on his novel, is sharp, occasionally witty, and laden with dialogue that works extremely well. It’s the predictable plotting that cripples the film, after all. Unfortunately, while most of the characters slide into their roles fairly well, Nicholas Hoult does not. He doesn’t look — or feel — right for the part. In fact, he just seems pretty nondescript.
The other actors range from good to perfectly cast, with Ed Hogg as DC Woodham, the star-struck police officer investigating Stelfox, and Craig Roberts as Darren, Stelfox’s A&R protege, deserving mentions of their funny, on-point performances.
For all it’s problems, Kill Your Friends is still a hell of a lot of fun — if Machiavellian misanthropes and shattered fourth walls are your thing. For one, it’s got a well-developed sense of what makes a good dark comedy, and it’s devilishly funny for most of its runtime.
The cinematography doesn’t take any big creative leaps, but the fluid editing does an excellent job of weaving the film together. Finally, the soundtrack could have been better, given that it’s a film about a really notable period in recent popular music, but the selection of songs isn’t very memorable.
It may be the wrong approach to look at this film in comparison with American Psycho, but the similarities are so glaring that to do otherwise would ignore important contextual information. Has this been done before? How? What was different?
Engaged on its own terms, Kill Your Friends may be good, but not great. Engaged with the awareness of its predecessors, it just seems disappointingly derivative. Be that as it may, however, it’s a decent entry in the canon, one that will provide a good deal of fun without making a lasting impact.