Thirty seconds into “Kill Your Friends” we’re informed that A&R men, the elite trendsetters who decide which albums get spun into consumable product and which ones end up in the trash bin, “Have no obligation to make art … we have an obligation to make money.” Oddly enough, freshman director Owen Harris has somehow managed to make neither. As a clunky, ersatz “American Psycho,” it’s unlikely the film will be a critical darling or a box office smash come its release.
Adapted from Scottish author John Niven‘s acclaimed novel, the film is set in 1997, at the apex of the Britpop music movement. The man most eager to ascend to the top of that scene is Steven Stelfox (Nicholas Hoult), equal parts opportunistic and mendacious. In the film’s first scene, our protagonist appears as an ambitious twenty-something fresh out of university having just majored in Apathy and minoring in Amoralism. It takes a matter of minutes to understand that Stelfox’s drive to succeed is unhealthy, and unsafe. Displaying clear psychopathic tendencies, Stelfox is determined to run the music industry, even if that requires murdering his coked-out colleague (played by James Corden) for a promotion.
Breaking the fourth wall, Hoult — doing his best impersonation of Leonardo DiCaprio in “Wolf of Wall Street” — informs us that this creative field is fueled by envy and greed. Ambling through his office, Stelfox unveils the nuts and bolts of the vacuous operation. As gleaned through his rambling monologue(s), the guiding principles for those who work in the distribution of music are as follows: 1) Befriend no one; 2) Stop approaching music as anything other than commercial goods (and note: the worth of those goods are entirely dependent on how much money they profit); 3) Consume cocaine frequently; 4) Throw colleagues under the bus if their demise will advance your career; 5) Act like an asshole.
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Everything else — empathy, vulnerability, emotion — is inconsequential to the production of popular records. This isn’t a particularly blinding revelation in the cinema. In fact, the film’s insistence on showcasing the allure of the dollar calls to mind Sidney Lumet‘s “Network.” Imagine watching the infamous boardroom scene — perhaps the greatest explication of contemporary capitalism — being delivered by someone with a fraction of the intellect and dexterity. That’s what the characters of “Kill Your Friends” do. Again and again.
The message is clear: power is money, money is power. But so what? Harris seems to believe that by reformatting a commonly known aphorism that audiences will respond in uproarious applause. He’s not misguided in presenting the perils of lustful, megalomaniacal living, but “presenting” is all that’s accomplished. Harris — who may be too subservient to Niven’s novel — does little in the way of examining the psychological and moral tolls that someone like Stelfox may carry.
Yet it would be unfair to claim the movie is a celebration of solipsism or sadism. Despite some of the sonically assaultive music pulsing through the movie, this is not a piece of art birthed into existence by Donald Trump. “Kill Your Friends” is satire first and foremost. The problem with that categorization is that it implies the movie offers up some unique (or possibly even humorous) insight into the music industry. It doesn’t.
Mary Harron‘s adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis‘ “American Psycho,” an unhinged deep-dive into the land of investment banking, worked because it was grounded in lunacy. When Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) and his white-collar cohorts exchange business cards — enraptured by the typography before them — it’s exhilarating (and hilarious) to watch Harron’ take one-upmanship to its illogical extreme.
“Kill Your Friends” doesn’t take such risks. The film doesn’t trust its audience enough to keep up with the joke. As a result, the movie toggles back and forth between a pulpy crime drama and a zany satire. It lands somewhere in the middle before deciding that maybe this should all be played for laughs. Although it’s bookended by some cartoonish bloodshed, it’s hard to shake the feeling that only a select few in the frame are “in” on what’s unfolding.
By the end the movie’s anthem is unavoidable. To succeed, kill your friends, and if they’re your enemies, make them your friends, and then kill them. It’s an unapologetically bleak worldview to propogate. Yet Hoult, who shows a tremendous amount of promise in the lead role, nearly sells this myopic understanding of existence. After all, Stelfox is a consummate salesman. He’s fooled so many with his bullshit — his bosses, emerging and established artists — which even he’s starting to buy. There’s something painful, though, eating at this central character. A sense of emptiness, forcing him to look inward only to discover there’s nothing there be calcified cynicism.
On two occasions Hoult contemplates the eternal question: “What is the meaning of life?” Most in this lifetime will fail to arrive at a satisfying answer, but not Niven and Harris. “To drive your enemies before you, and here the lamentations of their women,” claims Stelfox and his mentor, Trellick (Joseph Mawle). If that sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because it is. Several iterations of this blithe response appeared in the 20th century. Arnold came to a similar conclusion in “Conan the Barbarian,” which pulled the sage bit of wisdom from Harold Lamb‘s biography “Genghis Kahn: The Emperor of All Men.” The movie’s inability to cite its sources is strangely fitting, though. For 100 minutes, “Kill Your Friends” apes a myriad of styles, trying to pass off imitation as innovation. Then again, the filmmakers have no obligation to make art, right? [D+]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.