DIR: Owen Harris • WRI: John Niven • PRO: Gregor Cameron • ED: Bill Smedley • DOP: Gustav Danielsson • DES: Charlotte Pearson • MUS: Junkie XL • CAST: Nicholas Hoult, Ed Skrein, James Corden
With perspective comes clarity, and history is beginning to pass judgement on the 1990s. For all its Celtic Tigers and post-Soviet strut, the last years of the second millennium are beginning to look strangely hollow, strangely drab – the fag end of an exhausted century – and those of us who grew up in England during that time have to admit that, for the most part, it was a bit crap. While our parents were nourished by the optimism of the ’60s or the passionate politics of the’ 70s, we were served up reheated banality, commodified rebellion and the vacant leer of abandoned ideals – Oasis, The Spice Girls, New Labour.
Kill Your Friends is set in the blackened heart of this cultural wasteland – specifically the 1997 music industry. Adapted from his own novel by John Niven, the action revolves around Steven Stelfox (Nicholas Hoult), a record label scout with a weakness for cocaine, misogyny and murder. As Britpop rules the waves, Steven pursues his sole aim: to vanquish his professional competitors and become head of the company’s A&R department. A proud psychopath, success (preferably at the expense of others) is the meaning of Steven’s life and he disdains anyone who doesn’t share the same philosophy. Luckily for Steven pretty much everyone in Kill Your Friends does appear to share the same philosophy and the film presents a year in the life of this dog-eat-dog corporate music hell.
The cynicism is relentless and often viciously funny. Niven’s real life experience as an A&R man added a genuine venom to his novel, and many of his most caustic putdowns have made it into the script. Everybody’s in it for themselves and nobody escapes contempt: talentless pop wannabes, earnest indie vegans, managers, journalists, and of course that special blob of ignorance known as ‘the public’. It’s an endurance test of misanthropy, but the script zings with bitterness and there’s something almost admirable in the way the film extinguishes any spark of empathy, humanity or hope.
Kill Your Friends will inevitably be compared to American Psycho, and there are also shades of Trainspotting and Fight Club. Unfortunately those comparisons don’t do the film any favours. All three rise above this offering because they more effectively explore the dark neuroses that lie behind each era’s shiny happy face. While Patrick Bateman’s nihilism can be seen as a perverse rebellion against amoral ’80s materialism, it’s hard to see Steven Stelfox as representing anything other than squalid, vitriolic nastiness.
The result is a shortage of satirical spice. The film starts and ends with images of a grinning Tony Blair – billboards hanging ominously on the edge of shot – but it’s a stretch to view Kill Your Friends as any kind of attack on ’90s superficiality or the betrayals of Blairism. Instead, director Owen Harris seems happy to limit the film’s bile to its primary subject – the malignant narcissism of the pop music world. Perhaps this is a product of Niven’s script, which doesn’t stray too far from the source novel, but a more interesting approach to its fin de siècle setting would’ve been nice. Stock footage and ’90s anthems are all well and good, but the film misses the opportunity to join a few cultural dots.
Having said that, Kill Your Friends is sharp, entertaining and watchable. Thirty-somethings will bask in the soundtrack and musical references, and the film is fun for a while. In the end though, a bit like Britpop itself, everything becomes slightly repetitive, with a nagging lack of originality and depth.
103 minutes (See IFCO for details)
Kill Your Friends is released 6th November 2015