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Some Might Slay: Kill Your Friends Reviewed
Robert Bright , November 7th, 2015 07:36

Robert Bright reviews the new film adaptation of John Niven's cult britpop bashing novel.

Whatever else they were, from the present day, the 1990s represent a hiatus between the fall of Communism and 9/11, the former event signaling ‘the end of history’ in Francis Fukuyama’s famously hubristic words, the latter event abruptly kick-starting it again.

But at the turn of the decade, with the Iron Curtain drawn back and the light flooding in, the mood was optimistic. No more Cold War. No more Nuclear Armageddon. The collapse of Communism was proof that change on a grand scale was indeed possible, that no regime was set in stone. For once it seemed like freedom was on the front foot, and in its own small way Rave culture’s inclusive, idealistic and loved-up vibe was a manifestation of such optimism.

At least that’s one way of looking at it. Another is that the hedonism of the first half of the decade was as much a product of frustration as hope, and rave culture’s good vibrations were mostly down to chemicals, the future not smiling so much as gurning. For one thing, in 1992 the Conservative party was elected for the fourth time, the final five-year term of a generation-swallowing 18 years in power. John Major’s government would spend it mired in sleaze. His opposite number, the youthful and unblemished Tony Blair, occupied the new centre-ground on the left, the rebranding of Labour as New Labour regarded as essential if they were ever going to get elected.

In 1997 the rebranding paid off in a landslide victory, emblematic of a decade that saw the power of marketing coming to the fore. According to the spin, we were now a ‘classless society’, although what we got in fact was a new class, the underclass, while the traditional working and middle-classes were now united in the meaningless generality of ‘hard-working families’. The National Lottery arrived, promising ‘it could be you’, while the odds of winning meant in all reality it would never be you. Meanwhile investors began looking at ways to monetise that techno-hippie communal thing called the internet, football was no longer played in thuggish dens but theatres of dreams, and soft porn became ‘lads mags’ which was fine because it was ironic, like the New Lad himself, irony becoming the convenient fig leaf for a lot of unreconstructed attitudes and behaviour in the 90s. As for the DIY ethic of the illegal rave scene, that had been killed off by the Criminal Justice Act in 1994, and in its place was the media-orchestrated Cool Britannia. Essentially, we’d arrived at the hippy wigs in Woolworths moment.

I imagine John Niven was sketching scenes and ideas for his novel Kill Your Friends throughout this period, both when he was working in A&R and in the following decade when writing became his day job. The book is a finely crafted, brilliantly sustained satire on the flavour of those times, carrying the reader through 1997 in the company of A&R man Steven Stelfox, a hyper-capitalised, crypto-fascist hedonist and psychopath. Stelfox personifies not only the hypocrisies of the entertainment industry – an industry where mostly sentimental, saccharine and infantilizing cultural products are manufactured in an environment of venality, cynicism and moral bankruptcy – but also the wider culture that shapes and enables it. Niven’s protagonist instinctively recognizes the power of marketing, of how success is a matter of presentation and manipulation, the triumph of appearance over reality. 'I lie constantly, I lie all the time,' he says in the novel. 'The very fabric of my daily existence from breakfast until bedtime, from toast until tranquillisers, is a finely woven torrent of utter shite.'

Bringing the novel to the screen was always going to be tricky. For one thing, it has found cult status since its publication in 2008, and this tends to mean people become a bit fanatical and possessive about it, hostile to any adaptation. Knowledge that Niven himself scripted the film would have gone some way to assuaging fears the content had been watered down, and it certainly hasn’t – Owen Harris’s film is to be praised for not compromising on that front. The soundtrack is great too, peppered with the era’s big hitters – Blur, Oasis, The Prodigy and Radiohead among others.

Unfortunately, its problems lie in other areas. Harris recognized the potential difficulties when he spoke of the film being “tonally sort of a tightrope walk to pull off”, but despite such awareness, it’s precisely in the tone where the film is flawed. There’s a combination of reasons for this. On the one hand, Nicholas Hoult doesn’t convince as Stelfox. In the novel, Stelfox is class neutral but an acute commentator on it – his colleague Trellick is ‘a generic toff’, Parker-Hall is a mockney ‘choosing to talk like a blacked up Dick Van Dyke’, Jo from the girl band Songbirds has ‘hard little peasant’s eyes’. Stelfox himself I always imagined as a creature of the London suburbs, upper-working/lower-middle class, the sort of background where the accent is likely to oscillate between glottal and RP depending on the company. Hoult is trying to capture something of this, I think, but in the film it comes across as inconsistent. Some of the voice-over lines are delivered with an upper-class haughtiness that feels off-key. In the novel, when Stelfox is making comments about the British public’s utter lack of taste, we laugh along with him, feel superior with him, but in the film, those same comments in a posh accent create a very different atmosphere, an alienating Marie Antoinette pomposity, a ‘let them eat coke’ vibe.

This is made worse by the sheer amount of voice over Hoult has to provide, and the film suffers from so much of the story being carried in this way. It creates a curious flatness, even boredom, sensations you never feel reading the novel. Hoult is more convincing with his in-scene dialogue, and he certainly looks the part – swaggering through the office in his designer clothes, cool and benumbed standing at gigs, sweating out the class-As on expensive leather sofas.

The dominance of the voice over also points to the film’s visual weaknesses. While the politics of the novel are subtle, they’re essential to its satire. So at the start of the book is a description of the Tory campaign poster in 1997, the picture of Tony Blair in which ‘a slash has been ripped across his face where his eyes should have been and a pair of red eyes – hellish, demonic eyes – burn out instead.’ I suspect this is a nod to the eyes of Doctor T J Eckleburg staring from the billboard in The Great Gatsby, and it encapsulates some of the novel’s main themes, as well as the obvious connection to the evil beneath the surface in Stelfox himself. In the film it has become a New Labour poster showing a benign and thoughtful Blair, which we see only in passing as a car moves along the Westway. Presumably the change is because the Tory poster was considered too confusing, those in the post-Iraq ‘Bliar’ camp in danger of regarding it a piece of vandalism by Anonymous. But given the novel’s hindsight, such ambiguity is kind of the point.

This criticism might seem like an example the kind of fanatical, possessive nit picking I mentioned earlier, but it’s one instance of how the film fails to provide effective visual context for Stelfox. In the novel, in spite of everything he says and does, he remains sympathetic (in the broadest sense) because what is filtered through his jaundiced eye is also what is diseased about the culture. Driving through ‘the nuclear winter of east London’, he recognizes that the people living here are picking up the tab for those like him living in affluent west London. His repeated comments on food left untouched at expensive restaurants and food rotting in the fridge at home are expressions of the excess and waste of turbo-charged consumerism. His musings on the sleeve artwork of The Prodigy album Music For The Jilted Generation are meant to have us weighing up the naivety or otherwise of rave culture’s idealism. All the sexual exploitation and degradation going on throughout the book should have us thinking about attitudes to women – 1997 being the year, incidentally, when the number of women in the national workforce exceeded that of men for the first time in history.

The film doesn’t find ways to integrate or interpret any of this, instead spending too much time in anodyne office spaces, lounges and hotel rooms, so that Stelfox’s sneering, egomaniacal commentary simply echoes around with nothing to land on, nothing to provide any historical context which might help illuminate the existence of such an individual in society. In this way, the satire of the novel is mostly lost, and much of the comedy with it. Rather than Stelfox as a proxy for the way we lived in the 1990s, and by and large how we still live in the 2010s, we’re ultimately left with a man who is simply a nasty piece of work, but worse than that, a man we feel indifferent towards.

Kill Your Friends is in cinemas now