You don’t choose your family. Part of what makes get-togethers at the end of the year so interesting is the different dynamics of the people you share blood with. Contradicting personalities forced upon one another, often clashing heads and attempting to find some form of civility with a group of people nature has thrust together through the process of procreation. It’s a difficult, tense time for many, with the overall sense that you need to get along with these people purely on the basis that…well, they’re your family.
Happy New Year, Colin Burstead is the British equivalent of a mumblecore film. Ben Wheatley’s (Free Fire, High-Rise, Sightseers) solo side-project is by all accounts a study on mundanity. It zeroes in on the domestic aspects of some of his other work (particularly the home life of the protagonists within Kill List – even casting the returning Neil Maskell) and amplifies them using the countdown into a new year and an isolated setting to create an uncomfortable and truthful experience many viewers will be familiar with.
Colin Burstead (Maskell, with his typical Cockney growl) has booked out a lavish castle for his extended family to celebrate the countdown to the new year in, and wishes to have a nice time despite the fact that they all get along like a house on fire and each hide their own secrets and beliefs from one another. That’s about it in regard to plot, but it’s not the plot that’s important here. Wheatley, a British powerhouse over the last decade alongside his wife/creative partner Amy Jump, has gone solo and therefore back to his initial roots of socio-realist cinema. The writing here is achingly dry to the point where you’re wondering if the cast were just told to act natural in front of the camera.
And what a cast too. Wheatley has managed to assemble a who’s who of mostly British talent including Charles Dance (Game of Thrones), Hayley Squires (I, Daniel Blake), Joe Cole (A Prayer Before Dawn) and Sam Riley (Control), all of which have their time to shine and slot into the ordeal like perfectly trimmed puzzle pieces. The Burstead family features its fair share of affairs, prejudices and arguments, many of which come to light in a mixture of kitchen sink drama and dry British wit.
Much like his previous directorial effort Free Fire, the concept focuses on an ensemble cast encased within a small location. However, whereas Free Fire was flashy with its steadicam, polished presentation and erratic jazz soundtrack, Colin Burstead sticks closely with the minimal handheld approach. Events and dialogue seem incidental at points, and whilst this sometimes dwindles the effect of certain character beats, it enriches your involvement in the family dynamic.
The accompanying soundtrack by Clint Mansell is a small orchestral flourish designed to prepare you for ensuing madness, and works wonders particularly in the second half of the film. For example David’s previous behaviour is a sour point for Colin, who takes it upon himself to try and shame him away from the family. As Maskell foams at the mouth, we feel the sheer amount of thoughts zipping through his mind because we’re very quickly caught up on enough of their history that we can fill in the blanks. Arguably this makes the first half hour a little too dry at times, especially when we find out which characters are actually followed up on for the rest of the film, but it’s astonishing how successful Wheatley’s script is at cementing such a chaotic time with this much clarity. There’s never a quiet moment, and it’ll be interesting to see if this disquiet can resonate with an audience outside of the UK.
Where Kill List eventually divulged into Wicker Man-style paganistic horror, High-Rise played with the dystopian idea of the class structure and Sightseers steered into the pitch-black sadistic comedy, I think I kept expecting a high-concept twist to transform Colin Burstead into something it’s not. There are sprinklings of a deeper problem within a number of the characters, helped along by Mansell’s swelling strings in the background that beg you to worry about a deeper problem. I think that’s where the film succeeds the most. As the credits began to roll I realised such tension I had associated with legitimate horror tactics had been strung from the Burstead family only, and the deadpan presentation had reminded me of why we all fear such family gatherings. This isn’t even an exaggerated portrayal. It’s just the closest anyone’s come to accurately presenting the horror of the dysfunctional family in a long time, and for a solo side project I think that’s as much as we could ask for.