DIRECTED BY: Ben Wheatley
FEATURING: Neil Maskell, MyAnna Buring, Michael Smiley, Harry Simpson, Emma Fryer
PLOT: Jay the hitman, out of the game and down on his luck, takes up a new contract with his
partner Gal to help support his wife and young son. As they start knocking people off a “Kill List,” Jay finds the targets challenging his principles, his relationships, and eventually, his grip on reality.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Though it will be of great interest to art-house audiences and fans of weird movies, the film doesn’t take as many risks as it would like to claim. It’s full of symbolic echoes and studied ambiguity, but there are no outright challenges to our expectations or sensibilities.
COMMENTS: Kill List is an excellent genre-hopping horror thriller, full of smart directorial choices and technical chops. The atmosphere is both sanitized and gritty, in that special way you find in cinema verite, and the sense of dread and instability is overpowering. Jay is sometimes sympathetic and sometimes terrifying, and Neil Maskell nails the role in all its variation. When the violence comes, it’s brutal and unflinching, with no glorification, and in this violence, you get the most striking indication that Neil is dangerously damaged.
The film shows its technical merit early, with a succession of domestic scenes that allow us a rich sense of the main characters and their relationships. Jay is stuck in the inertia of unemployment after a bad experience in the army and a job that apparently went south in Kiev. His relationship with his wife is rocky, but not doomed, and if you were coming into Kill List with no expectations whatsoever, you could be forgiven for expecting Jay to go through a dramedy-style self-discovery that ends with the renewal of his marriage. During these opening scenes, you get moments of genuine tenderness, especially between Jay and his son. Jay becomes a great father when he spends time with Sam; furthermore, his friendship with Gal appears to be strong, and he eventually proves his loyalty to his wife. It’s only in the moments of disorienting timing and discordant music that we see that this film is going to wander far from this nuclear family.
After Jay takes a job, the contracted killing of three targets, Kill List starts revealing its larger shape, in which it resembles some older psychological horror films. Particularly relevant: The Wicker Man, Rosemary’s Baby, and Angel Heart, all of which evoke a sense of sinister descent as the main character is drawn into a malevolent web that they don’t understand. In Kill List, the victims all seem to recognize Jay, and they all seem to have some kind of connection to him… starting with the first of the three, they all thank him as he kills them. After the first murder, Jay and Gal start seeing larger conspiracies at work around their targets, and our glimpses of these conspiracies create a lot of space for speculating about Jay’s own past and his apparent significance to this whole arrangement.
Kill List has a methodical open-endedness that’s intriguing, but almost maddening when you start trying to draw connections between the clues. Some of these clues are plot-points that have no clear explanation, like Fiona drawing the Kill List symbol on the back of Jay’s mirror, or the replacement of Jay’s doctor with some kind of sleeper agent. Other clues are symbolic echoes that resonate through the film, like the motif of Lists, the references to Arthurian legend, and the concept of the sacrificial offering. These connections are everywhere, and result in a wide-open network of suggestion that can’t be wrapped up into a single definitive interpretation. This relentless ambiguity would qualify the film as weird, if it didn’t seem so meticulously planned. In the end, you’re left puzzling over a rubik’s cube with no correct solution.
If a twisted horror movie with a grimy arthouse aesthetic appeals to you, then Kill List is definitely worth a watch. It’s a solid A-grade movie, and it succeeds in creating an alluring enigma, an impenetrable uncertainty at the heart of the narrative. If it felt more spontaneous or more personal at some key moments, it would certainly qualify as a weird movie, but it doesn’t quite make it. Still, it comes highly recommended.
A further recommendation: If you’re an American English speaker watching at home, I’d recommend turning on subtitles… the accents made it difficult to understand a lot of the dialogue, at least for me.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“It’s baffling and goofy, blood-soaked and not boring… The movie may leave you scratching your head way too much when it’s over. Yet it proves Ben Wheatley not only knows how to make a movie, but he knows how to make three at the same time.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)