Set in 1997 London, during the height of the “cool Brittanica” music craze when bands like Oasis and the Spice Girls ruled the airwaves, Kill Your Friends cribs heavily from the American Psycho playbook Nicholas Hoult plays Steven, an up and coming A&R rep for a major label who has his eye on the top job, and isn’t afraid to spill some blood to get there. The result is a pitch black comedy that feels lifted straight out of the era that inspired it.
Kill Your Friends imbues the music industry with the same cutthroat, shark invested political waters that served as the Wall Street investment firms that served as Patrick Bateman’s playground. The film opens with Hoult addressing the camera that he and his cohorts have no use for artistry or political statements in music. The only quality that matters to Steven is how much profit he can squeeze out an act. His sneering missive “Do these look like the kind of shoes worn by someone who gives a fuck about the Velvet Underground?” informs the audience all it needs to know about his world even before we’re swept headlong into a world where the champagne and cocaine is always overflowing, where the bullshit meter lies permanently pinged to the red and where a single misstep can cost a million pounds and put some poor bloke on the breadline.
That kill-or-be killed world and Steven’s ability to navigate through it with just enough skill to keep from drowning is what makes the film compelling during its best moments. Steven’s ability to master the political aspect of his job, along with an almost preternatural skill at maneuvering potential rivals to their downfall almost masks the fact that he’s completely fucking awful at his actual job. His personal assistant has a better ear for potential hit artists, as evidenced by her identifying and harping on a band he should sign months before they get hot and he finds himself on the losing end of a bidding war for them. He throws away hundreds of thousands of dollars signing a novelty single based on the reaction of one coked to the gills nightclub crowd only to have it crash and burn, leaving him dangerously close to losing his job altogether. Instead of labelling him as a sociopath, a more accurate description would be he mimics the trappings of a sociopath in order to mask his own deep levels of insecurity, doubt and self loathing. Hoult throws himself into the role, shedding any remaining trappings of him as the precocious child from About A Boy out the window. In doing so, he gives the audience a character that’s fascinating to follow for an hour and a half even if in your heart of hearts you know you’d be tempted to punch his lights out five minutes after meeting Steven in the real world.
The political and preservation instincts can only carry Steven so far however. His ineptitude will keep him out of the promotion to head of A&R he so desires, and after his best mate and equal part burrito and cocaine enthusiast Waters (British talk show host James Corden) gets the gig, it brings out the animal in Steven. Even as he attempts to calm himself by listing all the nicknames he has for cocaine in his head, Steven finds himself bashing his best friend’s skull. Even after earning the head job on an interim basis, Steven finds himself hounded by a detective who has aspirations as a songwriter, a secretary with a keen eye for what’s going on and a mind to take advantage of the situation (a winning Georgia King) and a rival A&R scout who soon finds himself hired as Steven’s boss and whose sharp intellect, professional composure and keen ear for talent serves to highlight every way which Steven comes up short.
The soundtrack is the other area where Kill Your Friends triumphs. Perhaps its the distance between the film’s setting and present day but hearing the likes of Radiohead, Blur, Oasis, The Chemical Brothers and more blaring from the screen brought back a rush of memories where the music scene felt vital and important. There’s such pure swagger coming from this music that feels so above and beyond what passes for pop tunes in 2016, it made it easy to forgive some of the excesses of the characters if only because the vulgar brazenness of the A&R world gifted the world a handful of timeless music. Steven and his cohorts also live on the cusp of the whole industry crashing around them in a few short years as file sharing, the iTunes store and reality singing competition is just around the corner. The first two items will kill the sale of albums as music becomes either stolen and swapped freely or purchased in single chunks for less than a dollar. The latter will cut the need for Steven and his ilk out, as the need for a middle man that tells the world what they should be listening to will be made all but obsolete. It’s a facet of the film Harris ignores outside of a single throwaway line about propping potential acts up on stage and having a studio audience choose a winner.
Kill Your Friends pushes your endurance for watching privileged white bros indulge themselves in every vice and excess available to them and its the film’s biggest downside. The spectacle of Steven and his cohorts rush from one coke fueled industry event to another for a night of over indulgence and empty sex grows wearying over time. The film seems self aware in this regard as the film’s last fifteen minutes feel like an ill thought out rush to tie a neat bow on everything, putting a capper on how Steven will conquer or be consumed by the three obstacles listed above. It puts a large problem of the film into sharp focus: as a character Steven is fascinating. As a collection of scenes, the film offers some exhilarating moments. As an exercise in storytelling, the film comes up short. The last act flies by in a way reminiscent of an undergrad student that left writing his term paper until the day before it’s due: rushed and under baked.
It’s not all for naught. Hoult’s fascinating performance, a rock solid soundtrack and sharp editing that accentuates the funniest moments (in particular, an industry journal announcing he was “stepping aside” moments after we witness an act he signed crash and burn drew big laughs) give Kill Your Friends a sharp edge that warrants a look. It would benefit from adding the hindsight that Steven and company are about to face industry shifts that will drive them off a cliff in a short time, but it seems content to allow them to have one last, year spanning afterparty before the lights go out permanently. It borrows heavily from the post Tarantino “talkie” style of indie cinema that became the rage during the period this film itself is set, so expect your milage to vary on your tolerance for that affectation.