Kill List Review

Review of: Kill List Review
Will Chadwick

Reviewed by:
On September 8, 2011
Last modified:March 2, 2013


Kill List is a tremendous film that features 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.

Kill List Review

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.

Kill List Review
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Kill List is a tremendous film that features 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.

Comments (2)

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  1. sarahsays:

    The Questions That I Have (& Some Observations):
    Overall I liked this film, but it did seem a bit sloppy by times, in not following through on hints and suggestions it throws out, and leaving many questions unanswered. It’s not that I’m so unimaginative that I need every loose end tied up, but some genres demand an adequate dénouement more than others. As Kill List is as much crime thriller as it is horror or slasher (with a surprising does social realism in the mix for good measure) it seems to me it is dodging questions as much as leaving them open to interpretation.
    For example:
    What does it mean when the first two victims say ‘thank you’? That they are part of the death cult? Or something else? And wouldn’t our two assassins find such a reaction rather odd? Or does that mean that they too (especially Jay) are in some way already implicated?
    What does it mean when the second victim asks Jay (during Gal’s absence), “Does he know who you are?” That Jay is part of the death cult, and Gal isn’t? That Jay is already implicated in some way? But then why does Jay freak out so much at the discovery of the snuff movies? (And why, indeed, as a professional killer, would he bother investigating his victims in the first place? Isn’t it just a job? (This also applies to his opening fire on the cultists at near the end.  Not a very wise move from an ex-professional soldier, when they are so outnumbered)).  Is it all for Gal’s benefit, to lure him into a trap? But then Gal’s demise hardly justifies such an elaborate plan.
    For me, the biggest narrative lacuna is Jay’s facial expression at the very end, which is impossible to read. He is neither devastated nor relieved, appalled nor appeased at what he has just done. So, was he in all along, or a little bit in, or not at all. If not at all, why isn’t he more upset at just murdering his wife and son, who for most of the film we are given to understand he loves and adores (well, his kid, anyway).
    This feeds back into those victims’ ‘thank you’s. They are so misplaced and ambivalent. Would someone, even a death cult member who wants to die, thank someone for breaking every bone in their body first? And in such a humble tone? Does that not indicate a degree of self-loathing which is at odds with cultist arrogance and nihilism? Very confusing.
    In my opinion, it would also have helped if we knew more about the back story, e.g. what went so horribly wrong in Kiev? Where did Gal hear about these new clients’ offer of work? And wouldn’t he check them out a bit more thoroughly before deciding to work for them?
    I’m tempted to posit some kind of overarching moral to the story, which had little to do with the usual palaver about social breakdown, rampant individualism and lack of community values. Maybe because Jay works as a professional assassin, and because his wife Shel already knows about what her husband does for a living and from where the family’s source of income derives, they are already, albeit metaphorically, part of a death cult. Is that where their complicity lies? It certainly makes them easier to target.
    But all of this could have been worked out with greater finesse.
    PS I did like the joke about whether or not Ben Wheatley is related to Dennis Wheatley…

    1. Really intelligent observations. In answer to the first question, I think the saying ‘thank you’ is open to interpretation, personally taking it on a metaphorical level. In that these people are taking death as redemption for whatever they’ve done.

      In regards to the other questions, it’s all pretty much in there according to Wheatley. I didn’t see every single detail but the giveaway for me was the insignia. This is inscribed on a folder that Gal finds in the pedophile’s safe, and if anything I think that is pretty much the key to unlocking the whole mystery.

      Also because it is a horror film the fact that everything isn’t explained is almost a good thing. It becomes almost a hardcore Lynch film. That it is so embedded in realism to start off that as it descends into darkness and the plot becomes more obtuse it gradually falls into surrealism.

      The mistake I think one could make is to take everything we see literally. That’s not the fault of the viewer, but the rampant realism is I think a technique used by Wheatley to throw you off from examining the film as symbolic.

      After all the mask wearers of the cult scream like eagles and it is unlike any other human scream I’ve heard. Perhaps it would also benefit from a second viewing, analysing what happens and not taking everything at face value. With that I think it is possible you could get more out of it.

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