Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Lone Scherfig burst onto the film scene with her remarkably restrained and powerful An Education, a film nominated for Best Picture that sprung forward the career of Carey Mulligan. Here, with The Riot Club, she works with other emerging talents in the film scene: Sam Chaflin, Max Irons, and Douglas Booth, to name a few. Her latest is marked by a surprising lack of subtlety and an aggressive, downright hostile message about “frat boy” culture in developed countries. The story, taking place at prestigious Oxford University, has members of a fictitious Riot Club wrecking havoc on everyone around them, including their own members and their deteriorating psyches. It makes for a never dull but often tasteless film, an effective tactic that also leaves little under the surface. There are tremendous scenes in the film’s second act, but its first and third act fail to fully develop characters properly, leaving the aftermath of the film’s climax dramatically unfulfilling. Nonetheless, it’s a compelling exercise from a cognizant director, even if it makes the viewer feel like they want to punch the next rich person they see.
The film opens with the fable of Lord Riot (Harry Lloyd), a wealthy man who set a legacy at Oxford that led to the creation of the now infamous “Riot Club.” With only ten students out of the 20,000 at Oxford belonging to the club, it remains a wealthy, ritual-heavy group that stands fiercely loyal to one another. Two newly admitted students who are prospective members of the club could not be more different: Alistair Ryle (Sam Chaflin), whose family is outrageously wealthy and snobby, wants to follow his uncle, a Tory MP; and Miles Richards (Max Irons) is a modest boy who not only counters Alistair financially but also intellectually. Miles and Alistair disagree constantly throughout the film on writing techniques, and Alistair and other members of the Riot Club mock Miles for dating someone that comes from a “lower class” than them, Lauren (Holliday Grainger). Upon the two of them being initiated into the club, they celebrate at a local restaurant led by an honest working-class man named Chris (Gordon Brown). From there, their debauchery knows no bounds and escalates into a night full of horrible miscalculations and grotesque displays of humanity.
One of the most telling scenes in the film is a montage of the initiations required for joining the titular club. They involve drinking liquor filled with maggots, sprinkled with cigarette ash, and many other vile substances. Another involves drinking until borderline vomiting and competing in various disgusting games, including one where Alistair and Miles must determine whether a name is real and then drink a shot for every one. There’s simply a ton of awful moments in the film, including an assault that grows increasingly repulsive and unwatchable, all eerily resembling fraternity hazing that has dominated our media lately. Yet, these deplorable actions are all intentional on Scherfig’s part. We are not meant to revel in the actions since we never connect with the characters or feel that the people they are hurting (mentally or physically) are deserving of such actions. It makes the film a mixed bag of sorts, sometimes making us laugh at how idiotic these rich people are, and then turning itself on its own head and making the audience hate every moment with them. The experience is overwhelmingly obvious, so much so that subtlety is lost in the mix and the film loses its full impact. Yet the message that The Riot Club sends is somehow timely despite its outdated methods and historicizing. It’s mesmerizing, even if it’s rarely affecting.
Grade: ★★★ (out of 5)