Kill Your Friends bullishly sets out its stall in the opening monologue – it’s an uncompromising study of ambition in an industry that’s purely motivated by profit, and if you’re not buying what it’s selling, you can eff right off. And then, just for good measure, Nicholas Hoult pisses on an unconscious James Corden.
The year is 1997, Steven Stelfox (Hoult) is a rising star in the world of A&R and the obvious candidate to succeed David Schneider (Dustin Demri-Burns), the dead manager walking at his label, Unigram. Like most of his class of entitled so-and-so’s in the industry, Steven has little knowledge and even less interest in actual music, much to the frustration of his dedicated secretary Rebecca (Georgia King).
Steven just happens to have grown accustomed to the coke-fuelled lifestyle in his line of work and he’ll do anything to continue his advance on the career ladder, even if it means actually listening to bands and trying to find a hit that will be embraced by the Britpop generation. But when clueless colleagues (like Corden) are promoted above him and his Brit-nominated opposite number Anthony Parker-Hall (Tom Riley) closes in on him, Steven will resort to dirtier and deadlier tricks to stay ahead.
Depending on your point of view, Kill Your Friends has been either garlanded or burdened with comparisons to numerous other movies. Just as John Niven’s novel was compared to Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, so the film version has been measured against Mary Harron’s 2000 adaptation of the same. The plot of this one is also similar to 2013’s Filth, the Irvine Welsh adaptation in which James McAvoy’s addled cop ruthlessly undermined his colleagues for a promotion, transplanted into the music industry.
The film isn’t much diminished in such company, even if it’s not in the same class as those films. Directed by Owen Harris (whose previous credits include episodes of Black Mirror and Misfits), it’s not the most singular-looking film of the year, but it definitely stands apart from its most obvious points of comparison, distinguishing a relatively recent setting from the present day through subtle touches here and there, rather than going all 90s-tastic on us.
Niven adapted his own novel for the screen and it’s expectedly profane and scabrous, with dialogue that jumps right off the page. He’s particularly partial to a Thick Of It-style simile in between sweary outbursts, with Nicholas Hoult’s boy who would be king dropping some absolutely vile dialogue as an aside to the audience.
With each successive project, Hoult continues to show sides of him that we haven’t seen before and it’s telling that few have called him ‘the kid from About A Boy‘ in the last five years or so. He’s playing a sociopathic shithead, but his lead performance is good enough that he has the viewer wrapped around his little finger not five seconds into his opening soliloquy. There’s something of the quality of his character from Skins in that, but while Tony was gradually redeemed, Steven is unapologetically monstrous.
He’s surrounded by a strong supporting cast too. Joseph Mawle is positively vampiric as the only colleague whom our anti-hero actually respects, and it’s sort of in keeping with this that the ever more youthful Craig Roberts is quietly reliable as Darren, an impressionable protégé. Meanwhile in a film where every other female character gets short shrift (I’d estimate that there are more bare breasts shown in the movie than lines of dialogue spoken by women), Georgia King is very welcome as the savvy secretary who proves to be more than a match against the toxic masculinity of her workplace.
The soundtrack is appropriately well chosen, transitioning between contemporary numbers (the movie opens with Blur’s Beetlebum, that sleepy, sleazy Britpop anthem) and the original score by Junkie XL (his second for a Hoult movie this year, after Mad Max: Fury Road). Musically speaking, the film also gets massive laughs out of some of the risible tracks that Steven has to endure, most hilariously in the case of a trashy bit of Euro-pop club fodder that seems to be called Why Don’t You Suck My Fucking Dick?
We shouldn’t be in any doubt that the film is not on Steven’s side here and we can have all of the same debates as we did about The Wolf Of Wall Street‘s portrayal of moneyed hedonism, but this is just as slick and few filmmakers can dream of matching Martin Scorsese’s firm grasp on the point of it all.
There’s much vitriol here, but it’s delivered straight down the line and it’s all much less shocking or even surprising than you’d think. This is especially true when it comes to Ed Hogg’s DC Wernham, who comes to interview Steven at work about a violent crime and looks for a glorious second as if he’s going to be the film’s Columbo, complete with “one more question”. This becomes a subversion in its own way – you keep expecting his character to be much more interesting than he actually is.
Drawing as the novel did on Niven’s own work experience, Kill Your Friends lets us in on a joke and that joke is a music industry peopled by young, inexperienced chancers who don’t even like their own product. It’s as brash and as glossy as any movie released all year and on occasion, the suffocating cynicism of it all yields some shameful laugh-out-loud moments. Your mileage may vary, but it’s hard to deny that the record is well-worn if not broken by the time the credits roll.
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.