The Stonecutters from The Simpsons are still my favorite secret society. But the idea is as old as the movies, and more than that, as old as the world. That's why there are so many of these films. A peek behind the curtain is the secret ingredient in many dramatic stories and it's enough to keep The Riot Club interesting, at least for a little while.
"If you have to ask you're not really the right sort of chap." The Riot Club oozes with the kind of smarmy British snobbery usually reserved for caricature. It's steeped in it. Beginning with a prologue introducing the club's Dionysian inspiration, Lord Riot, a whatever-century rake in the mold of of The Man of Mode, The Riot Club takes us to Oxford University.
The campus setting is immediately seductive and the movie takes its time introducing all eight current Riot Clubbers and the two freshman destined to be new members. Miles Richards (Jeremy's son, Max Irons), conceived with Kind of Blue in the background, is the handsome, down-to-earth recruit. And Alistair Ryle (Sam Claflin) is the spoiled brother of a Club president, though he's too snooty to even want to be a member. To become one, the boys have to have gone to the right boarding school but, more importantly, they must answer this question correctly: "Do they have it in them to be a fucking legend?"
Both new kids are discovered by members as director Lone Scherfig (An Education) deftly keeps her story rushing through the hallowed halls of the university. The playboy, Harry (Douglas Booth), has roots that go back to Lord Riot himself and paintings bearing his likeness hang in museums. The details are fun. The club is whispered about in the hallways and the boys reek of entitlement and good-natured tomfoolery... at first.
The cast deserves much of the credit for the film's solid first act. Each member carries the posh attitude perfectly, and Claflin is especially great. He smiles through his teeth and crosses his legs with the right air of wealth, like his wallet is forcing him to one side. But the hero is Miles, who connects with the sweet and pretty Lauren (Holliday Grainger) right away, giving him good guy credibility. When she tells him, "These guys aren't your friends." You know she's right. The actors are all on point. This is one of those movies we'll look back on in ten years and see five or six famous young faces.
After the usual initiation montage and three or four more uses of the words, "legend" and "classic," The Riot Club settles into an uncomfortable place. For the first half of the film, Scherfig applies her own cloak and dagger technique, never hinting at what's to come. The script, written by Laura Wade and based on her own play, gets into seriously dark territory when the Rioters hold an annual dinner at a country restaurant and take their credo "everything to excess" a little too seriously. It happens fast. The tonal shift, from carefree youths living recklessly to reckless youths turning to violence, isn't exactly handled with nuance.
But the themes at play are powerful. The danger of privilege is always relevant as long as money can buy lawyers. And the danger of youth and specifically, young boys in groups - the Lord of the Flies syndrome - is compelling. Getting there isn't exactly fun, however. These characters are largely despicable, some more than others, and the gloves come off in the film's final act. Watching these rich boys treat people and talk about them as lower life forms gets tired quick, so prepare to have your buttons pushed.
It's impressive this film was made by two women: Scherfig, and Wade, who writes males well. The movie resorts to default personalities and catch phrases too much, but satire usually resorts to such tricks. Nothing in the film is too far out of the realm of plausibility. The behavior is meant to shock us, but it works because it feels authentic. Few of us have walked Magpie Lane in Oxford, so it's interesting to be taken there, taken inside the walls of an institution like Oxford, and then inside an institution within the institution. The Riot Club is a glimpse of a better life, and how that privilege can create monsters. It's not likable, and it's not for everyone. But, if you can handle sentences beginning with the phrase "I say..." then you're doing alright.