A film’s protagonist doesn’t necessarily need to be likable for a movie to succeed. But in order for the film to be compelling the audience needs a reason to care about what’s happening to the character, which is the key missing in Kill Your Friends, a pitch black comedy based on the book of the same name by author John Niven. Directed by Owen Harris—who is best known for helming the tear-inducing Black Mirror episode “Be Right Back”—the story takes place in the British music industry in 1997, focusing on a young A&R man named Steven Stelfox. Though Nicholas Hoult is certainly up the challenge of tackling a character as despicably ambitious as Stelfox, the script fails to make him interesting, which becomes a bigger and bigger problem as the film spirals into very dark territory.
At 27, Stelfox has ambitions of taking over the A&R department at his record company. Through voice-over and direct address, Stelfox is candid with viewers about his “whatever it takes” attitude and cynical outlook on the recording industry. As he explains, asking an A&R man about his favorite kind of music is like asking a stockbroker which company is his favorite—whichever makes the most profit. Ultimately, that’s all that matters to Stelfox: money and power. Problem is, we don’t really know why. He’s not really passionate about music, he doesn’t have dreams of pivoting the creative direction of the company—he just wants to run the A&R division because, power? Which, in and of itself, is not interesting enough to propel Stelfox’s arc, and yet that’s pretty much all the film provides by way of motive.
As the record company faces the prospect of hiring a new head of A&R, Stelfox surveys his competition and ultimately has high hopes of landing the gig. But when a coke-fiend, slob of a colleague (played by James Corden) is selected for the job instead, Stelfox decides to become a bit more active in getting what he wants, which leads the picture down a much darker path than the first few scenes may suggest.
Granted, the opening sequence features Stelfox urinating on a passed out colleague with absolute disgust and derision for the human being beneath him, so the film is pretty upfront about how terrible this guy is. But despite Hoult’s willingness to wholly inhabit this manic, twisted mashup of Wolf of Wall Street’s Jordan Belfort and American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, the film fails to give the audience a reason to care about what Stelfox is doing and who he’s doing it to.
The only thing that keeps the film afloat during this deep dive into cynicism is Hoult’s performance. Kill Your Friends gives the actor a chance to stretch his chops into more complex territory, and despite a subpar script, he impresses. The performance is convincing without going over the top, and one imagines what could have been had he been given better material. Harris doesn’t seem quite sure how to frame the character’s arc, toying with some bigger visual ideas in the third act that may have been better set up earlier in the film.
But if the drama and character arcs fail to satisfy, the comedy of Kill Your Friends is mostly solid—especially throughout the first third. Submarine breakout Craig Roberts is a swell comedic foil to Hoult as Stelfox’s talent scout, Edward Hogg is a surprising breakout as DC Woodham, and Hoult handles the cynical humor of the recording industry well. But as the film’s tone grows darker, the comedy gets more off-key, resulting in a kind of tonal dissonance as opposed to well-delivered dark comedy.
Ultimately there are shades of a better film buried somewhere inside Kill Your Friends, but the lack of motivation for Stelfox’s arc makes the film an unsatisfying watch. An impressive, go-for-broke performance from Hoult and some solid comedic beats are welcome, but once the film starts down its very dark path, culminating in a pitch black conclusion, the cynicism drowns out most the goodwill that was previously sprinkled throughout.
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