Thanks to my daily alter ego as a 9-6 business professional (hard air quotes), I’m continually drawn to dark cinematic interpretations of corporate navigation. It’s intriguing to watch these far-fetched sleazeball fantasies play out, bringing physical meaning to the term “cut-throat business practices.” I’m referring to movies like American Psycho, about a smooth-talking wolf in Valentino’s clothing, or Bloodsucking Bastards, a sharp-tongued satire of skeevy salespeople. What could be more fun than obscuring regularity and exploiting herd mentalities for the horrors we’ve become blind to?
Owen Harris’ Kill Your Friends is no different, as John Niven’s source novelization translates one record producing guru’s ruthless, can-do attitude into serial assassinations. Think of it as a modern version of Vinyl, with a lot more intentional bloodshed, less coherency where morality complexes are concerned and the same amount of snorted narcotics. A&R departments have to account for at least half of Colombia’s gross national intake, right?
Nicholas Hoult stars as Steve Stelfox, an ambitious A&R man who spends his days hunting for Britain’s next chart-topper while achieving inhuman levels of intoxication. His practices revolve solely around finding the next piece of shit that general audiences will worship like lobotomized sheep, while they ignore natural talents that are groomed and matured. In order to get ahead, Stelfox is willing to squash the competition by any means, as he’s powered by a self-help book titled Unleash Your Monster. While success does find the heartless dealer, so does blackmail, bribery, narcissism and cold-blooded murder. Can Stelfox stay one step ahead of his lies before they come crumbling down, crushing everything he’s built?
For a remorseless killing machine, Hoult is quite charismatic in his Patrick Bateman-esque A&R role. Equal amounts of cocaine and cynical poetry flow through his system, as an inner monologue rattles off every insane mantra that sometimes prevents violent outbreaks – while fueling others. Hoult owns his dead, menacing glare as he chokes a co-worker to death with a leather dog leash (some Psycho detachment), but also switches into the fun-loving, abusive, anarchistic douchebag that A&R workers seem to be pegged as. A glowing sea of pulsating neon lights consume what little humanity might have saved Stelfox’s tainted soul, while his darkest moments burn with a raging chaos and the worst intentions. He’s no anti-hero – he’s a straight demonic incarnation.
Yet, aside from Hoult’s transfixing (in)sanity, Niven’s story dips a bit too deeply into a hopeless pool of seething hatred. Why should we root for Stelfox, who heartlessly slices and dices his way through a record industry built on deception? Maybe there’s truth to the generational bashing of a greedy music scene that lost touch with talent-based acts, but consequences are continually side-stepped by even more nefarious deeds. Retribution never strikes, as Stelfox’s constant parade of debauchery comes full circle during Niven’s strangely pitch-black finale. There’s a dirtiness to the film’s unfathomably bleak outlook, one that’s aggressively hard to shake.
Outside of Hoult, a strong supporting cast either combats or encourages the film’s increasingly reprehensible actions. James Corden rails dusty lines alongside Hoult as a fellow A&R rep, Georgia King attempts to push her way from secretarial duties to A&R’s green pastures, and Craig Roberts reps the indie crowd despite Hoult’s dismissal. They’re all stellar additions around Harris’ leading psychopath. Yet, by getting stuck in Hoult’s wicked web, intentions warp impressionable minds into stoic followers, once again cloaking scenes in weighty darkness. Kill Your Friends might be one of the most egotistical, self-centered thrillers in recent memory, as label workers turn into certifiable mercenaries.
Harris does nail a late-90s Britpop transition towards electrodance musical fads, as he guides audiences through flashy venues packed with Molly, bare skin and loose morals. Minus a slew of unnecessary deaths, the director makes working the A&R circuit seem like an alcohol-induced fraternity dream, one that’d attract any young talents looking for an easy out-of-college translation. Seedy nightclub orgies corroborate Stelfox’s admittance that no industry professional actually knows what they’re doing, besides getting loaded and rolling the proverbial dice. At least it looks like “wholesome” fun? The acid-dipped raves, not the killing, that is.
There’s a trashy, sexy thriller buried somewhere beneath a mountainous heap of the loathsome societal grief that is Kill Your Friends, yet it never finds daylight. A strong leading performance isn’t enough to shake the film’s unsubtle workplace deathmatch, where sins are almost never answered for, because more sins erase them (or so we’re told). There’s a message here, one about forcing your own success, but it comes with a bloody price that’s spitefully unfulfilling. Narcissism is one thing, but Steve Stelfox’s workplace purge brings moral abandon to new, unfavorable levels.
Kill Your Friends is a bleak, narcissistic thriller about slicing your way to the top, but its relentless mean-streak comes across a bit too brash for comfort, or enjoyment.