Most discerning cinemagoers tend to value subtlety over sheer bludgeoning impact when it comes to films about complicated sociopolitical issues. We like to think, often rightly, that a nuanced argument has more value than a screed that casts its subject in black and white. Sometimes, though, a solid cinematic punch in the gut has its uses. As I watched The Riot Club, Danish director Lone Scherfig’s sensationalistic class warfare drama from 2014, the analytical side of me kept up a running monologue about how overindulgent and simplistic it was. My gut, on the other hand, was churning and it’s this visceral reaction that stayed with me longer than the pooh-poohing of my inner critic. This is a film that basically has no point to make beyond “rich white males are the worst,” a sentiment that some might say is not without merit but, nevertheless, begs considerable qualification and analysis. The Riot Club is not interested in providing any such considered examination. It just rubs our faces in white male privilege until we’re practically nauseous.
The film, based on a play written by Laura Wade (who also wrote the screenplay), begins with a short 18th century prologue in which Oxford student Lord Ryot is killed for sleeping with another man’s wife. Apparently much admired for the fact that his “appetites knew no earthly bounds,” Ryot’s friends establish the titular club to honor his hedonism. Flash forward to the 21th century and the current members of the club — wealthy, well-connected and white to the last — are trawling for new members from among the university’s incoming class of freshers. Their prime candidates are Alistair (Sam Claflin), a resentful little monster from “the ragged end of the gentry,” and Miles (Max Irons), well-meaning but also a definite one-percenter. From the beginning, Alistair and Miles are set up as foils, pawns in service to the film’s themes. Miles wants desperately to prove to his comparatively un-privileged new girlfriend Lauren (Holliday Grainger) that he’s just a normal person ready and willing to transcend his posh roots. Alistair, on the other hand, clings to privilege because it’s all he has. His family, aristocratic though they may be, isn’t the financial powerhouse it used to be and his frustration is inversely proportionate to his negligible personal fortune. It’s his hope that membership into the Riot Club will set him up with the sort of connections that can propel him into a lucrative career. And, indeed, we discover that the club’s former members are very highly placed and able to provide cabinet positions and legal aid alike with equal ease.
The absurdly good looking British cast sells the material for all its worth, their considerable charms more than compensating for the broad brushstrokes of their characters.
Via Miles and Alistair, Scherfig and Wade set up the film’s dueling progressive and conservative perspectives, to the extent of having them actually debate England’s postwar welfare system at a tutorial. Despite this obvious setup, the film gets its hooks in you early, mostly due to the fantastic performances. The absurdly good looking British cast sells the material for all its worth, their considerable charms more than compensating for the broad brushstrokes of their characters. You’ll love to hate these coiffed lounge lizards even as you find yourself increasingly fascinated by their rarefied milieu. And we feel for Miles even while suspecting that his privileged upbringing means he’ll probably come up short when it counts. And come up short he does during a flawlessly mounted centerpiece sequence in which the club, banned from all social establishments in Oxford, travel to a family-owned country pub for their annual blowout dinner.
At the dinner, the group gets roaring drunk, bullying the working class family serving them, and slowly building up a head of steam when their sense of entitlement is goaded by the pub-owner’s increasingly apparent contempt and by a prostitute spooked away by their intimidating group vibe. Their ugliest misogynist and classist sentiments start spewing out their mouths along with a lot of wine-laced vomit, accumulating to form one of the most discomfiting scenarios I’ve endured in recent cinema. It’s an exquisitely fine-tuned sequence, one in which the mounting tension can be cut with a butter knife. As an intellectual exploration of these kids’ dysfunctions, it’s somewhat clumsy. However, as a piece of dramatic storytelling, it is compelling beyond belief and horrifying to a fault. By the end of the (very long) scene, I felt brutalised and exhausted in a way that I rarely feel even after the horror movies I so tend to favour. The Riot Club’s horrors are real and the social forces it represents shape our lives every single day. In fact, despite Wade’s insistence that the subjects are entirely fictional, it has been posited that the club is based on the real-life hellraisers of the Bullingdon Club at Oxford University, an organisation that counts David Cameron and Boris Johnson among its alumni. A mashup of a particularly toffee-nosed version of Wolf of Wall Street (at least Jordan Belfort worked for his money) and The Lord of the Flies, The Riot Club, is, as such, a perfect example of a skilled filmmaker and cast teasing genuine impact out of material that could be seen as superficial repurposing. But, aside from the inherent worth of a film that can hold you in rapt attention for two hours, there’s also the niggling fact that sometimes it takes a rabble-rousing screed to get people worked up about genuine problems. If you weren’t already angry about the wealthy trampling casually over your rights and aspirations, you will be after watching this grueling s**t-stirrer.