The Riot Club,” with its promising setting of modern-day Oxford University and its promising premise — think “Fight Club” meets “Brideshead Revisited” — ends up delivering dismally on that promise, much like the students who star in it. The film itself turns out almost as badly as its characters do in this tale of a super-elite, ancient club at Oxford devoted to debauchery and privilege which, naturally, runs amok.
The cast was amusing enough, notably Max Irons, son of Jeremy Irons, and eventually I was able to tell the difference among the Riot Club’s 10 members, although in the end it didn’t matter very much. Irons plays an Oxford freshman who is casually abandoning some of his more posh tendencies as he navigates his first year at Oxford, mostly by dating a pretty and intelligent girl who is less aristocratic than he is.
The other new student who ends up joining the Riot Club is played by Sam Claflin, a chap who I remember as turning in one of the most forgettable performances in that Kristin Stewart Snow White movie, which is really saying something. He makes more of a mark in this one as a student cowering in the shadow of his older brother, who was once the president of the Riot Club. He starts off meek but is swiftly emboldened when he takes up with the other club members, and nothing more about his psychology or background ever comes in to play again.
By the film’s conclusion, however, Sam Claflin is the ringleader of the violent attack at the center of the story. After a reasonably entertaining buildup, with amusingly delivered dialogue from the interesting looking cast, we arrive at the point of the Riot Club, their wild, debauched dinner, which has to take place at a fairly remote pub because they have been banned from so many places.
At this point, despite copious alcohol, drugs, shouting, singing and the appearance of an escort, the dinner party scene seems to take as long as an actual dinner party, an interminable one, with lots of checking your watch. As the Riot-ers get drunker and speak more freely about their inherent class superiority and hatred of those beneath them, the film manages an incredible confluence of horrifying acts that are also incredibly boring. Long after you have started saying “check, please,” the events reach a violent conclusion and in the sober light of day, a scapegoat is sought for the crimes.
The conclusion of this movie, which was not heavy on suspense in the first place, is one of the most baffling and unsatisfying ones I have ever watched. I literally checked the DVD menu because I thought we had skipped a scene. Later I felt even more baffled when I discovered that the director of this silly trifle also directed one of my favorite films from recent years, the delicate, intelligent “An Education.”
That film was restrained, intelligent and perfectly paced; this film was over the top, inexplicably paced and totally blunt with its obvious theme. “The Riot Club” actually did pull sporadically entertaining performances from some of its cast, and so I must blame the material itself. It added nothing to a bloated field of stories about rich people being terribly nasty and expecting to get away with it.