The lads of The Riot Club – an exclusive club for 10 of Oxford University’s richest and brightest young men – make Chuck Bass (Gossip Girl), at his rapiest, look like a prince. And this is a guy who traded the love of his life for a hotel before sleeping with his barely consenting step-sister. Like Chuck Bass, these boys were raised in the lap of luxury and privilege. As they say in Britain, they’re posh, which comes with special customs, accents, and terminology.
They dress in tailored suits, live on large estates, take dinner in tuxedoes as if they’re still living in Downton Abbey, and acquire status through family income, titles, and a prestigious high school alma mater: Eton (where Tom Hiddleston went) is the most prestigious, but those who attended Westminster or even Harrow (Benedict Cumberbatch’s alma mater) are also granted a seat at the table. And they have so much pocket cash that they can casually dispose of a Lamborghini should someone vomit in it. Their customs may be outdated, but make no mistake, the film is set in the present day, where a text message can wreak havoc.
Over the course of Lone Scherfig’s harrowing two-hour film, The Riot Club, we watch as two new freshman, Alistair (a chilling Sam Claflin) and Miles (the incredibly handsome, charismatic, and talented Max Irons) get initiated into this morally bankrupt group, which promises access to an invaluable network of Britain’s most powerful men. Alistair is socially awkward and pedantic; when he gets mugged he can’t help but correct the malapropism that his mugger makes in asking him to type in his “PIN Number” (“PIN stands for Personal identification Number”) and gets a walloping for it. Miles is our entry point into this world: he’s personable and clever, has forward-thinking political views, and is uninterested in showing off his posh upbringing. Both get tapped for The Riot Club through Alistair’s older brother, Hugo (Sam Reid), a senior member of the club, who seems to have a crush on Miles, making him out of place in this heteronormative group.
The Riot Club’s initiation process is both snobbish and demeaning: they drink glasses of wine filled with maggots and snot while blindfolded, but are expected to identify the vintage and vintner. They’re at once obsessed with elitist knowledge and indulge in the basest, most riotous behaviour. They welcome you to the club by trashing your room. When Miles’s girlfriend (Holliday Grainger) questions his interest in joining a club that would do such a thoughtless thing as a form of flattery, he shows his cards by suggesting that she’s just jealous because she can’t be a part of it; the club still admits no women, and its rituals are rooted in misogyny. Being a member means you’ve a birthright to privilege, that you’re better than everyone else. By banding together they can reinforce these instincts.
The majority of the film takes place during the annual Riot Club dinner, where they welcome new members. That we spend so much time stuck in this dining room with them is where the film shows its cards as an adaptation of a play, Laura Wade’s Posh. The boys dress up in identical, old-fashioned tuxedoes, and they travel far, far out into the sticks to dine. At first, it seems bizarre that these snobs would go to such effort to dine at a humble, country pub, which hardly offers the fine cuisine they’re accustomed to. But eventually their intent becomes clear: only at such a place can they bully the poorer, behave badly, and expect to get away with it. It starts off harmless: they’re rude and condescending. Before long, though, they start to live up to the club’s riotous name.
Miles is the first, and possibly the only one, to be troubled by the increasingly horrible behaviour of his peers. When he tries to stop them, though, he’s faced with the reality that there are nine of them and just one of him, and there’s not much he can do. Even if he were to leave and call the authorities, which at one point seems appropriate, he could wind up getting blamed for everything. It’s their word against his, and they’re connected to the most powerful men in the country. He may not participate, but he’s complicit in every vile action.
This is how wealth and privilege perpetuate themselves: if you disapprove of the system and try to fight it, you’ll only hurt yourself because the privileged still have the power. You may join the club thinking it’s a sedate and refined group, and Scherfig initially shoots formally with longer takes and a slow-moving camera to mimic this. But once you’re in it, even before you fully understand what that means, there’s no getting out. It’s set up to ensure the loyalty of the people that stick with it. As the club’s reprehensible, destructive, and, true to its name, riotous behaviour gets slowly revealed, Scherfig’s shooting gets increasingly energetic, erratic, and quickly cut.
While Gossip Girl helped explain its screwed up characters by showing us their horrible or neglectful parents, The Riot Club gives no context. We assume their grossness is something they’ve internalized by being around privilege, but we see nothing to explain their unforgivably bad behaviour: Alistair comes off as a villain, and there’s little exploration of his insecurities, which are clearly driving some of his actions. It ensures that only Miles has our sympathy, and even that is sometimes questionable. We need not like the other members of the club, but this is a missed opportunity to make them more nuanced, three-dimensional characters. Instead, this mostly interchangeable bunch of douchebags are defined solely by their privilege. They may be scum, but those Riot Club boys sure know how to fill out a tuxedo handsomely.