Opening with a 17th Century scene of a young man stabbed to death for sleeping with another man’s wife all while matched to elegant music that wouldn’t feel out of place in Downton Abbey, The Riot Club encapsulates early on what it’s protagonists love; being rich, being powerful and not obeying societies rules. Whether you are in the 17th or 21st Century, rich white boys are sure to use their privilege to bend the rules to their will and here, director Lone Scherfig shines a light on real clubs that come out of schools like Oxford that have produced the likes of Boris Johnson and David Cameron. These all boy clubs may seem innocent enough on the surface but they are filled with ideas of classism, racism, sexism, homophobia and toxic masculinity that will seep into society from the highest levels of politics and thanks to The Riot Club we are invited to one of these behind closed doors soirees.
With the majority of the film being set over a single night as the self appointed ‘Riot Club’ celebrate another year of debauchery, new recruits Alistair (Sam Claflin) and Miles (Max Irons) are brought into the fold to bring their number back up to ten. After hazing rituals that include violence, public intoxication and destroying their dorm rooms, the two join the rest of the club members at a quaint countryside pub to celebrate. Over the next few hours however, this quiet family establishment is quickly subjected to the clubs unruly behaviour. It’s here where ‘The Riot Club’ show their true colours and you see the extent at which these young men’s worldviews have been warped, turning into monsters wearing expensive tailcoats.
The first thing that becomes abundantly clear from this club is that they are wealthy, and not afraid to flaunt their wealth to get what they want. This is best encapsulated when the owner of the pub, Chris (Gordon Brown) speaks to the boys about their rowdy behaviour that has seen them lose some of his regular customers. The club are quick to bring out their wallets and pay off Chris for his loss of business which he begrudgingly accepts.
Not to be outdone though, when Miles’ love interest Lauren (Holliday Granger) arrives unexpectedly the rest of the club offer her money to perform sexual acts on the group after their attempts to hire an escort fall through. From early on Lauren makes it clear that she is from a middle/working class background as she speaks about her father’s excitement and fear of her attending Oxford because of the university fees. Quickly her Northern accent also puts her as an outsider compared to the members of ‘the club’ who with their “Queen’s English” voices soon blend in to nearly a singular entity. When they offer Lauren the money in the pub it would pay for all her university tuition fees and they know that. Using their wealth to show not only power over Lauren, but Miles who is expected as a new member of the club just to go along with it. He may show regret later but in the moment when he says “It’s up to you” when Lauren asks what he has to say about their offer, he sees Lauren as less because of her socioeconomic background. Miles may not be the villain of this piece but by standing aside and allowing the remaining club members to flaunt their privilege he is complicit in their actions.
As the night goes on Miles becomes quieter after the incident with Lauren that sees any potential relationship in taters, while Alistair, being one of the leading voices encouraging Lauren to take the money makes his voice heard. He speaks of “bourgeoise outrage”, “resentment” and being “sick to fucking death of poor people” which soon evokes rioting behaviour from the rest of the members. The room is left entirely in ruins and the young men feel triumphant that they have shown that pesky pub owner who is really in charge.
The club once again to try to pay away their problems, offering to compensate Chris but he refuses and brands them what they are, spoilt brats. They proceed to beat Chris half to death with only Miles jumping in and calling the police stopping them from killing him. All are arrested but one takes the fall for the crime, Alistair. By taking responsibility he saves the clubs reputation while allowing the other members freedom to complete their studies. And his reward? He meets a Conservative MP at the close of the film who thanks him for his service to the club and offers him a position in his office. As he leaves the building, he walks away with a smile on his face. Not only has he got away with assault, destruction of property but also ended up with a high paying guaranteed job. His status has seen him fall up the career ladder faster than most graduates could ever dream of.
And ultimately this is the message of Lone Scherfig’s film, that no matter the despicable acts performed by the rich they will always be pulled up by the system. This isn’t a fictitious world, this is reality. They are Brock Turner’s who are branded Stanford University Swimmer rather than rapist. They are Donald Trumps, Boris Johnsons and David Camerons who hold the highest offices in government despite all types of criminal acts. They can screw up as much as they like but the world is designed for them to win and the rest to lose.
by Shaun Alexander
Shaun Alexander is a freelance writer and film student based in London. His favourite films include Inside Llewyn Davis, Fish Tank and The Lobster, and he enjoys writing on aspects of toxic masculinity and mental health in film. He has recently realised a love for the genre of “Period Drama Women Behaving Badly” Find Shaun on twitter @salexanderfilm
Categories: Women Film-makers