There are few novels based on the music industry more talked about than Kill Your Friends.
John Niven’s black comedy, first released in 2008, introduced the world to Steven Stelfox, a ruthlessly ambitious A&R exec whose wit, fury and searing put-downs turned a murderous bigot into an unlikely antihero.
Now we have a movie adaptation, with British actor Nicholas Hoult playing Stelfox during the entertainingly overblown Britpop era of the mid-nineties.
Stelfox was always a grotesque caricature of the music industry’s worst values, yet one lent a certain amount of perverse charm by Niven’s caustic style.
Transitioning that charm to the big screen was inevitably going to be a challenge.
Have Hoult, plus director Owen Harris – and Niven himself on scripting duties – managed to pull it off?
Not really, according to early reviews.
The Kill Your Friends movie – co-produced by Warner Music Group owner Len Blavatnik – got its first showing at Toronto Film Festival in Canada on Saturday (September 12), and the first wave of critical reaction has arrived. It’s not great.
Benjamin Lee in The Guardian awards the film just two stars out of five, calling it ‘tiresome’.
In a scathing review, he writes: “The difficulty with black comedy is avoiding overkill and Kill Your Friends is a dictionary definition of the word.”
Lee is particularly unimpressed with Hoult’s turn as a hedonistic, nasty music biz operator.
“[Nicholas Hoult’s Steven Stelfox] is patrick bateman played by a topman model.”
Benjamin Lee, The Guardian
He comments: “[Hoult] looks too young for the role and despite an increasingly savage narration, he fails to imbue the nasty one-liners (“success is a gang bang … failure is a lonely rapist”) with the requisite bite.
“He’s Patrick Bateman played by a Topman model.”
That’s not the last reference to Bateman, the titular lunatic from Brett Easton Ellis’s breakthrough novel American Psycho.
Lee is not alone in suggesting that Hoult’s Stelfox is conspicuously reminiscent of Easton Ellis’s infamous narrator, as well as his tour de force cinematic portrayal by Christian Bale.
Variety critic Andrew Barker says that the Kill Your Friends movie begins as a “knives-out music industry satire” but, in the end, Stelfox’s relentless nastiness just becomes unpalatable.
He writes: “A number of his quips hit the target — like describing a bashful indie-loving scout as “putting the ‘uh’ and ‘er’ in A&R” — but just as often they wallow in a tiresome tenor of try-hard transgressiveness, whipping out incest and HIV metaphors in a manner more pushy than shocking.
“After exhausting most of its satirical energy, “Kill Your Friends” simply traces Steven’s race to the bottom of human depravity in its second half, growing more bloodily extreme and less interesting as it goes.”
“Kill your friends takes superficially sinister turns yet lacks the comic chops or dynamism to amuse or excite.”
Emma Simmonds, The List
The film gets a lukewarm ‘C’ rating on Collider, which concludes: “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.”
The List awards another 2/5 star review. Critic Emma Simmonds says that the film “forgets that in order for its gruesome events to have impact, you have to build contrast, create jeopardy, and there has to be someone to give a toss about”.
She adds: “Kill Your Friends instead offers up an exposé of the music industry that takes superficially sinister turns yet lacks the comic chops or dynamism to amuse or excite.”
The Playlist on influential blog Indiewire is equally underwhelmed, surmising: “As a clunky, ersatz American Psycho, it’s unlikely the film will be a critical darling or a box office smash come its release.”
Critic Sam Fragoso comments: “Kill Your Friends is satire first and foremost. The problem with that categorization is that it implies the movie offers up some unique (or possibly even humorous) insight into the music industry. It doesn’t.”
The Hollywood Reporter is more sympathetic, but notes: “The literary Stelfox was much more misogynistic, homophobic, racist and generally contemptuous of humanity than his screen avatar.
“Possibly for commercial reasons, the film-makers have softened their protagonist’s toxic nature a little, earning a 14A rating but sacrificing some of his diabolical charisma and lacerating wit in the process.
“The movie is tamer than the novel, almost becoming a celebration of overblown hedonism in Wolf of Wall Street mode rather than a portrait of a morally vacant, mentally unhinged monster.”
Screen Daily’s also finds elements of the movie enjoyable, but notes:
“At its best, Niven’s savvy tale of a business he clearly loathes aims for the inky-bleak humour of Withnail overlaid with the insider-takedown tones of Robert Altman’s The Player, or How To Get Ahead in Advertising, although he and first-time director Owen Harris struggle to turn this smattering of ingredients into a film that consistently engages.”
But there’s another 2* review from the Toronto premiere on Cine Vue, which calls the movie “a rancid cocktail of misogyny, homophobia, and much more besides, that never convinces as scathing satire as much as back-slapping celebration”.
Adds critic Ben Nicholson: “Kill Your Friends is more dirty pint than classy cocktail… which promises good times and delivers a dicky stomach and a stinking hangover.”
At the time of writing, Kill Your Friends has a 20% average on review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes.
The film is due for general release from November 6.Music Business Worldwide