Kill List. 2011. Directed by Ben Wheatley. Written by Amy Jump & Ben Wheatley.
Starring Neil Maskell, MyAnna Buring, Harry Simpson, Michael Smiley, Emma Fryer, Struan Rodger, Esme Folley, and Ben Crompton. Rook Films.
Unrated. 95 minutes.
Firmly I stand in the camp of cinephiles who are those full of praise for Ben Wheatley.
I first saw Kill List when it came out in 2011, then I voraciously devoured everything he’d done that I could get my hands on. I saw Down Terrace, Sightseers, and of course since then his segment in The ABCs of Death (“U is for Unearthed”) and the psychedelic trip that is his wonderfully weird A Field in England. I think Wheatley has done some excellent, smaller independent films and now he’s working his way up to doing some bigger, still edgy films in all genres.
That’s one of my favourite things about Wheatley is that he can cross all genres. Certainly, much of what he does has a supremely dark edge, and more often than not his films stray into horror; whether it be just wading in the water, dipping the toes, or full-on in the lake. There’s always some sort of disturbing angle to his films, be they crime, drama, or otherwise. Personally, I think Sightseers is my absolute favourite of his work, but Kill List is a close second, if not tied.
This movie has something that I always love: an air of dread. When a filmmaker culls up that sort of thick atmosphere that lays over a film like carpet, then I can really get into it. Probably because the tone of a film is what essentially brings me to it and makes me love or hate/dislike it. That’s my personal biggest element on a checklist when I watch something, and definitely if it’s a horror – I need that sense of creeping atmosphere that holds on and never lets go. Here, Wheatley has that, beyond that even. There’s a sense from beginning to end that anything can happen, that there is nothing but Hell and brimstone and despair left ahead; right from the opening moments, it only gets thicker and thicker with each passing scene. Couple that with a neat and frighteningly odd story, some good actors, plus the entire way in which Wheatley builds the film, this is destined to be a cult classic.
Kill List is the story of Jay (Neil Maskell) and his wife Shel (MyAnna Buring) who are married and have issues. Part of that involves the fact Jay seems to not be working. However, Jay and his friend Gal (Michael Smiley) are actually soldiers who’ve since become hitmen in their downtime between armed conflicts. It’s evident there hasn’t been work in awhile, though, all of a sudden there are new prospects for work.
They take the new work and meet a strange new client – he even makes a blood contract, cutting his own hand and then the hand of Jay to seal the deal. Weird and shadowy events begin to happen, which prompts a little hesitation on the part of both Jay and Gal. Though, Jay seems to be determined on making the job work, regardless of how strange and out to lunch things seem, more and more. One check off the kill list after another, and down the line things really start to change for the worse in Jay’s life. Not to mention, the cut on his hand from their new client seems to be getting worse.
There’s no telling what might happen.
What I really love about Wheatley’s filmography in its entirety is that all his films, despite what their individual genre/sub-genre might be, examine some sort/form of relationships. Whether it be one between two outcast types in Sightseers, the dunce crime family from Down Terrace, or the former war buddies Jay and Gal plus the deteriorating marriage between Jay and Shel here in Kill List, Wheatley is always examining the relationships between people, in many shapes, and how people both encourage and discourage one another, lift the other up or drag them down, and so on.
Here there are a couple different dynamics happening. Most interesting, to me, is Jay. Primarily that’s because he’s the central character here. Part of his character examines the relationship between he and his wife Shel, part of it examines the one between him and his friend Gal. The husband/wife dynamic is obvious. What truly intrigued me here is how Jay and Gal get along; two old wartime buddies, now forced to move on. We’ve all seen those typical movies where the war buddies come home, one can’t handle it like the other and reverts back to old behaviours, et cetera. Here it’s a little different because what essentially drives Jay toward the ultimate tragic/horrific finale of Kill List is this need to make things right – with his wife and also just generally in terms of his finances. It’s not a case of two men coming home wounded from war, psychologically scarred. In fact, Gal goes along just fine even with most of the weirdness a lot of the times, only sparsely having trouble with the job(s). This is a case of two men trying to make ends meet, coming home after serving their country and finding themselves strapped for cash, struggling to make ends meet – where do they end up? Killing human beings, not for Queen and Country but simply to cash a pay cheque. It’s an interesting dynamic going on because in the end what leads Jay to this horrible place, and Gal as well, is the fact that they have not truly been compensated enough by the army to find a way to stay financially stable, and this pushes forward all the creepy aspects of the plot which unfold later on. If maybe they were taken care of properly by the army, they wouldn’t have to come home unqualified for certain work, or unhappy anyways, and end up reverting to violence as a means of getting by. Not saying this is meant to be a socially geared film, but I do find there’s a little bit of commentary in the characters of Jay/Gal and what they end up doing back home after the army.
About 20 minutes in, as everyone is partying and having a nice time after a friendly supper, the yelling couple – Jay and Shel – has made up, Gal’s new girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer) carves a strange sign on the back of the mirror in the couple’s washroom. Very unsettling and strange, which begins a mystery.
I like how things got weird almost immediately. Then there’s this slowburn, quiet build to the atmosphere, all that dread, it increases the tension and makes things move along, bit by bit, while we wonder exactly where this is all headed. With that first marking on the back of the mirror by Fiona, we get the sense there are near epic bouts of madness to come; at some point. Then there’s the cut on the hand, the infection – Jay’s visit to the doctor is even a bit sinister. Everything keeps us feeling uneasy, just as if we’re in the same shoes as Jay, watching everything happen so oddly and in a strange manner that makes everything feel so dark, so dreary. As if horror is around every corner.
That’s the most effective part of Kill List. It builds and builds on the atmosphere, then all the suspense and the tension gets paid off with a highly creepy climax and finale. Things fall apart in those final minutes – but in a beautiful sense; they fall apart the way in which they are meant to do so. Wheatley lets the chaos unfold in front of the lens as Jay makes it through the darkness, into the light. Then the true terror begins, playing out within the last scene or two. Some slowburn thrillers don’t end up paying off appropriately, however, I feel Wheatley truly pays off what he worked so hard to build throughout the film with a fitting finish.
I can’t rave enough about Kill List. Ben Wheatley is one of the best filmmakers going today and I hope to continually see more exciting, visceral work come out of him in the future. He’s a good mind behind the camera, as well as the fact he has some good writing abilities.
This is, hands down, a 5 star film for me. Flawless. Some say it’s boring, which is beyond my comprehension. I like films that work well with atmosphere and tone, plus I love a film which can pace itself appropriately. All the pacing works here because we get bits of suspense drawn out, that dreadful and tense atmosphere hovering constantly, and then there are moments of pure blood and horror which make everything so worthwhile. The cult like group at the end of the movie is just the pure liquid form of nightmares.
Not to mention the finale of this film really blows me away. Every single time. Sure, there are similarities to other films you might say, but I don’t see anything being copied here. If you do, fine. I see something that works well enough on its own that there’s no need for comparison. Either way, I love the last bit of the film and it always get to me, each time I see it. There are some truly great horror scenes in this one; blood and all. Vicious, savage stuff in perfectly framed shots. Wheatley knows how to treat violence – at times it’s graphic, at times it’s subtle. But it is always there.
I’ve watched Kill List maybe a dozen times since it was first released. I cannot and never will get enough.
If you’re looking for a non-typical, creepy little horror with a bit of crime mixed into the story, then this is for you. Certainly will not disappoint in any way, shape, or form. Cheers!