Kill Your Friends: Don’t Look Back in Anger, by Craig Schroeder
There are but a few rules any satire should remain beholden to: be funny, be cutting and be relevant. Kill Your Friends is a vicious satire of 90s Britpop, portraying record executives as cutthroat, cynical coke-hounds. The film is sometimes funny and is certainly cutting, but it fails to be relevant. Instead, Kill Your Friends relies on 20/20 hindsight to poke fun of an era without ever really making a salient point.
Set in the mid-nineties during peak Britpop, Nicholas Hoult is Steven Stelfox, a record exec at a fictitious British record company desperate to find the band, artist or group that will propel him into producer superstardom with the likes of Quincy Jones and Clive Davis. He’s cynical, crass and vicious. After years as a corporate bootlicker, Stelfox’s career stalls, so he kills his friend, colleague and the heir-apparent to Stelfox’s dream job as Head of Artist and Repertoire. Owing a substantial debt to Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street—fourth wall breaking, manic pace, sleazy anti-hero, etc.—Kill Your Friends, director Owen Harris’ feature debut, can be a fun ride but can’t strike a balance between shock and poignancy, rendering most of the satire impotent.
For a film riddled with faults, Nicholas Hoult is the most tangible element of a satire built upon a shoddy foundation. Hoult leads an ensemble cast—including James Corden, Ed Skrein and Rosanna Arquette—as the unrequited alpha of a record company filled with knuckleheads and nincompoops (each dressed like a different avatar from a Guitar Hero game). There’s not a lot on the page for Hoult to work with, but he is able to squeeze charisma into every frame (including giving some of the best double-takes in the biz). Steven Stelfox is a threadbare character (as is everyone else in the film), an unimaginative portrait of a cliche personality, all of his charm and edge are forced by a busy, self-congratulatory screenplay that fancies itself on the cutting edge (“I find it calming to repeat all the words I know for cocaine”). But Nicholas Hoult gives this role credibility and nuance. After conquering the damning reputation of “cute child-star”, Hoult has hacked his way through any number of thankless supporting characters (the meandering X-Men films being the most apparent), to take on some truly bizarre and challenging roles. If there’s a single takeaway from Kill Your Friends, it’s that Nicholas Hoult is an actor who effortlessly elevates the material he’s given and deserves a script worthy of his ability.
As a fan of Oasis, Radiohead and Blur, I got a lot of mileage out of Kill Your Friends’s numerous references and (sublime) soundtrack (though the film doesn’t seem to know whether it reveres or loathes said bands). But as a nineties period piece, the film isn’t realized. Instead of watching a film that takes place in the 1990s, every frame feels like a filmmaker in the present constantly shouting “Don’t forget, it’s the nineties!” (a deathly cinematic syndrome that already made victim of Aubrey Plaza’s supposed-to-be breakout role in 2013’s The To-Do List). With winking allusions and smug “jokes” that abuse the power of hindsight, Kill Your Friends’s sense of humor is largely referential, lacking any real punchline (more than once Noah Gallagher’s notorious temperament is mentioned). While there are some nice satirical moments (the police detective investigating Stelfox’s crime spends most of the movie soliciting his shitty demo), but most of the satire is weak and unnecessary. Worst of all, the satire takes every opportunity to punch down, making targets of vegans, “indie kids” (whatever that means) and overweight people, among others.
But laziness is what makes Kill Your Friends less watchable. Harris employs a few tricks, but can’t quite execute them properly. When the fourth-wall breaking works it’s because of Nicholas Hoult, when it doesn’t it’s because the screenplay relies on it for dull, expository dialogue. Moreover, story elements rely on cheap twists and turns that aren’t earned and rely on shock value to cover for bad storytelling (including one of my biggest cinematic pet peeves: the death of a dog, played for comedy and used to liven-up an otherwise obligatory plot device). Harris and writer John Niven (who also wrote the novel upon which the film is based) walk a line between reverence towards the material being satirized and lobbing cheap jokes with little payoff, often relying too heavily on the former, making the entire endeavor feel like the mean-spirited product of someone spurned by the industry rather than satirically taking the piss out of it. Whereas a satire like This Is Spinal Tap demystifies the inherit goofiness of glam rock, Kill Your Friends tries to demystify the already transparent facade of the music industry and the cynical cogs that turn the gears. Kill Your Friends has its moments, but in the end what’s the point? It’s all Blur and Oasis signifying nothing.