FILM REVIEW: Kill List (2011)

Kill List (UK, 2011)
Directed by Ben Wheatley

Starring Neil Maskell, Michael Smiley, MyAnna Buring, Emma Fryer

It's fast becoming a cliché of my reviews to say that a sign of a promising filmmaker is their ability to retune generic conventions to create something both unique and conscious of its place. Like Guillermo Del Toro's Cronos some 18 years before it, Kill List is a triumph on these terms, moving between distinct genres in a smooth and disturbing manner. And while it never entirely live up to the hype, Ben Wheatley's second film is nonetheless a nuanced, brutal and remarkable thriller.Kill List's relationship with genre is such that it can move between the territories of three completely different films in a way which is totally seamless. It begins very much in the verité, kitchen-sink style: the dinner party scenes are shot with intimate hand-held cameras, and contain the same level of repressed, explosive tension which is present in the work of Mike Leigh. In its middle act it moves firmly into hitman thriller territory, showing our two male characters going about their business and struggling to pass the time in between jobs. Finally it moves into full-blooded supernatural horror, with an ending which, while somewhat incoherent, is strange and terrifying.The film's relationship with horror is anchored in two particular films. The first is Angel Heart, Alan Parker's stylish and graphic re-telling of Faust which retools the conventions of film noir. There is the same feeling of the world, or perhaps the devil, slowly closing in on our troubled central protagonist. Like Harry Angel, Jay unknowingly refuses every offer of help and disregards any chance of salvation. While Harry turns down an egg, saying that he has a thing about chickens, Jay threatens the leader of the Christian group at the hotel, saying he will make him swallow a plate if he doesn't stop playing his guitar.The other horror reference point for Kill List is The Wicker Man (although, as I mentioned in my review, its status as a horror film could be disputed). The main comparison is in the role of a pagan or supernatural cult, drawing our protagonist to a certain place and time where he will, to coin a phrase, cast off his former nature. There is a subversion of The Wicker Man's climax in the ending of Kill List: rather than being sacrificed by the cult, he is subversively accepted, with the murder of his final victims being an initiation. But the film utilises pagan-esque imagery through, particularly in the recurring image of the three-pronged gallows.In terms of its contribution to the horror and thriller genres, the film attempts to do what Dead Man's Shoes did for the revenge thriller. Shane Meadows' gripping film, perhaps the best of its kind since Get Carter, pushes the revenge conventions as far as it can, and then pulls the rug out from under us with an ending which shows the deep humanity which has been destroyed by what has unfolded. Kill List doesn't quite achieve that level of power, but it still manages to find the human suffering in amongst the brutal violence and generic conventions, and for that it deserves to be praised.In its opening sections, Kill List examines the mental and psychological state of soldiers returning home after military action. Jay loves his family but is unable to readapt to the demands of modern life. When his son asks for a bedtime story, he recalls a mission in the Middle East, changing the place to 'Baghdadistan' in a vague attempt to claim it wasn't real. Even something as simple as doing the shopping is beyond him; at the beginning of the film his partner berates him for coming back with nothing but tins of tuna and wine. These scenes tread close to the closing section of The Hurt Locker (amongst others), but they don't feel half as choreographed or forced.The film, and its opening section in particular, hangs on the brilliant central performance of Neil Maskell. Having worked solidly in small supporting roles - including an appearance in Basic Instinct 2 - this could be the performance which brings him the attention he deserves. Jay is a complex ball of violent energy, being equally well-meaning and sociopathic, and displaying the same impulsive passion for violence as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather. You spend the film trying to figure him out, wondering exactly what happened in Kiev, while all the time being terrified that if he looks at you the wrong way, you could be next.

When it becomes a thriller, Kill List uses the various killings of Jay and Gal to hold up a mirror on society's attitude to violence. There is an implication that the targets are involved in creating or distributing extreme forms of pornography; although we never see the evidence, we come to believe that children are involved. The film is a snapshot of public outrage at sex scandals and paedophilia, with each of the people on the list being associated with such acts: one is a priest, one a librarian, and one an MP. Jay is the expression of the public's anger, the embodiment of all those vitriolic texts and letters to tabloid newspapers. By having him go so far to achieve his goal, the film demonstrates that, if provoked in a particular way, we are capable of acting without any concept of mercy, morality or restraint.When Ben Wheatley was interviewed about Kill List, he compared it to the Arthurian legends, particularly the stories of various knights proving their worth to join the Round Table. This would explain the connection with witchcraft and ties in further with The Wicker Man, with Jay's actions being one elaborate ruse to bring him into a demonic cult. The brutal nature of Jay's murders, coupled with the shocking death of his final victim(s), subvert whatever moral implications his actions had. In going so far in the name of what he thought was right, he has sunk further into the darkness; he has proved his worth, and been left a broken shell.

There are subtle hints throughout the film that Jay may be the mark in this elaborate and macabre operation. When we first meet Gal, we find him likeable and jovial enough, but during the scenes in the hotel we begin to suspect that he may be more deeply involved. The meetings in the hotel, where Struan Rodger pays Jay and Gal for the killings, are akin to the scenes in Angel Heart where Louis Cyphre engages the services of Harry Angel. Finally, all of Jay's victims to heard to say "thank you" before he kills them - something which has drawn criticism because of its relationship to the violence.Kill List's biggest asset is its amazing sense of atmosphere. Its brilliant sense design, masterminded by Martin Pavey, creates an almost Lynchian level of unease. The film is deeply unnerving and intensely claustrophobic, and the recurrence of bells in Jim Williams' soundtrack hints at both the death knolls of the victims and the slow death of Jay and Gal as they journey deeper into the abyss. The moments of humour in the film, such as Gal explaining why they use an Astra rather than a BMW, are both brief moments of relief and every bit as awkward as the events around them.Even for seasoned horror fans, the violence in Kill List is incredibly brutal. It is perhaps the most brutal depiction of violence since Irreversible, which starts with someone getting their head smashed in with a fire extinguisher. The argument for the violence in Kill List is the same as it was 9 years ago: it is brutal and repulsive because there is nothing about these actions that are justifiable. One's tolerance of the violence will depend on the strength of one's stomach, something reinforced by the unflinching nature of Wheatley's camera. The knee-capping sequence is the real test, and many will regard this as being over-the-top.The more unsatisfying element of Kill List is its ending. In terms of narrative and genre, it adds up; there is nothing nonsensical or absurd about what happens to Jay and Gal. But this is also the point where the camerawork becomes deficient, and the film threatens to tip over into the more histrionic and boring end of found-footage. The tunnel sequence is really, really terrifying, but by the time we get to the fight it has started to drag, and the constant cutting to black does become annoying.Kill List is a remarkable second feature which is destined for cult status among horror fans. It fulfils the promise of Down Terrace as a film which is mindful of its place in genre but which also has thematic and character ambitions beyond that. It isn't quite the masterpiece that critics have claimed: the ending is a little incoherent, and many people will struggle to sit through the brutal violence. But there can be no denying its worth as a socially pertinent and deeply scary horror film, which at its best gives Angel Heart a run for its money.

Verdict: Tense, tough and truly terrifying


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