Be warned, this is one of these reviews which you cannot do without giving away some plot details. These plot details in themselves aren’t necessarily spoilers but the less you know about them, the better film experience you will have.
Kill List is one of those rare British films that deserves to be a massive crossover hit but shamefully won’t be picked up by a major distributor due to its lack of Colin Firth and a rousing feel good finale.
Kill List is bleak, not as much Southern Gothic as Yorkshire Gothic and comes to us from new kid on the Brit flick block Ben Wheatley, whose previous work was the similarly low budget Down Terrace.
Despite perfectly balancing a number of different genres, from Mike Leigh kitchen-sink drama to Tarantino revenge flick, it is very clear by the end of the film that this is a work closest to the horror genre. But a horror film that keeps its grimly realistic feet on the ground, never really stretching believability.
The film starts off in a household dropping us right in the middle of an argument between Jay (Neil Maskell) and his wife Shel (MyAnna Buring). They don’t have any money, Jay has been unemployed for 8 months due to a bad back and has also recently returned from Kiev, where we are told he was involved in a military operation.
Then we see Jay and Shel preparing for a dinner party which will be host to Jay’s army buddy Gal and his bizarre new girlfriend Fiona, who takes a break from the table to carve a pagan symbol into the back of the bathroom mirror, (which appears as a motif throughout the film). From there events begin to get very uncomfortable, intense and dark.
When tensions between Jay and Shel blow up at the dinner table, it is clear to Gal that Jay needs to get out working again. He finds a well paid job which as him taking out hits on 3 people. Something is wrong from the off though, as the contractor signs the bond with Jay in blood and is oddly quiet through the meeting.
From that point on the film’s narrative turns into a tick list as we watch the guys take out these hits. Each one getting more brutal as the unhinged Jay begins to make the kills personal and they become messy. One of which results in one of the most deeply unsettling scenes of screen violence I’ve seen in quite some time.
The main triumph of the film is how uncomfortable it makes you feel. The head splitting violence is indeed unnerving but director Wheatley achieves something very difficult, which is to make simple conversations claustrophobic. The tone is at times unbearably oppressive and that is a triumph.
To make an audience member feel that, is not only a sign of really brilliant direction but also a terrific meld of a wonderful scoring (which reminds us of Jonny Greenwood’s musical accompaniment to There Will Be Blood), beautifully grainy imagery and terrific performances.
Neil Maskell is brilliant as the constantly on edge Jay. This is not your typical movie hit man, the job isn’t glamourized and the guy isn’t an athletic, good looking heartthrob. He is schlubby and imperfect, he looks more like a salesman than an assassin. Which is probably why the two of them get away with their aliases when using different hotels.
Maskell is also a deft performer who has the ability to play a very disturbed persona without resorting to ham fisted dramatics. It is a performance of brooding menace, the man plays Jay as if he is a ticking time bomb waiting to go off.
This element of Maskell’s performance is only heightened more by the calmer, more measured performance by Michael Smiley who plays Gal. It is much more grounded and he attempts within the stress of the job to keep a cool head. He’s far more laid back and he never does any of the killing, preferring not to get his hands dirty.
This could be due to the character’s very underplayed Catholicism or it could be down to him being a particular man who wants to get the job done cleanly. The pairing of Maskell and Smiley is terrific and they have great chemistry together, when watching them you buy their relationship and it does feel like they have been friends for years.
The film is held together though by assured direction from Ben Wheatley, who only in his second feature is very intrepid in his storytelling, not afraid to take the strangest of turns down into very surreal territory. He also knows how to ratchet up tension without quick cutting.
All the build up is done by long, handheld takes with only a couple of set ups per scene. Its a very intelligent way of keeping that realism but also making an audience feel uneasy. They seemingly go on forever and this is not something we are used to in mainstream cinema. Of course this is a technique that was mastered to similar effect by Andrea Arnold in Fish Tank.
He’s also a man who clearly understands cinema and more importantly British cinema. This is a film grounded in Brit flicks and the heritage of both horror and drama. The film’s first two thirds owe a huge debt to Shane Meadows‘ revenge pic Dead Man’s Shoes, for both its agonizing tone and the grotty look.The final part of the film is not entirely dissimilar to The Wicker Man (only far less camp) as a strange mask-wearing occult becomes a very large part of the plot.
The final 20 minutes show how much potential Wheatley really has. It is a nerve shredding climax that shook me to the core, skilfully edited and cruelly turning the tables on the main characters in ways you never expected, before resulting in one of the most shattering horror denouements. It is the finest horror set piece I’ve seen in years.
The film is also thematically rich, upon reflection there are a lot of themes and parables running through the core story. Open minded religious people could actually see a very clear, albeit very twisted, story of good vs. evil. In some way or the other, the people on the kill list are deserving of their death, the killers are also seen as some sort of redemption by their victims. In the most violent scene in the film, a man thanks Jay after breaking his hands and knees with a bevelled hammer.
Like The Wicker Man, it is about the battle between two men, who do have some form of religious morals, coming face to face with a paganist cult that they can’t comprehend. There is also a very well handled and subtle suggestion that Jay’s violent nature is a result of battle shell shock. Like many will do, you could just see it as an intelligently structured genre film. But like the best genre films, you take away whatever you bring to it. My interpretation of the film’s events will be very different to the next person’s.
Whatever one thinks, you can’t deny the power of this superbly impressive and ultra bleak film. It is one of the most deeply provocative and unsettling films I have seen in sometime.
Kill List has been picked up for distribution in the US by IFC Midnight, when it finally makes its way to your shores make sure to catch it. Whether it be in the cinema or an online rental service or DVD, this is a film that needs to be seen.