Kill List. 2011. Directed by Ben Wheatley. Screenplay by Amy Jump & Wheatley.
Starring Neil Maskell, MyAnna Buring, Harry Simpson, Michael Smiley, Emma Fryer, Struan Rodger, Esme Folley, and Ben Crompton.
Unrated. 95 minutes.
Firmly I stand in the camp full of praise for Ben Wheatley.
I first saw Kill List when it premiered in 2011, then devoured everything Wheatley’s ever done. I saw Down Terrace, Sightseers, and since then his segment in The ABCs of Death (“U is for Unearthed”), plus the psychedelic, wonderfully weird A Field in England. Most recently I loved High Rise and Free Fire, too. He also directed an episode of the fantastic CBS series Strange Angel. He’s done excellent, smaller independent films, now he’s working his way up to bigger, still edgy films no matter of genre. That’s a mark of talent. He’s capable of crossing all genres. Certainly, much of what he does has a dark edge. And usually his films stray into horror, psychological or otherwise.
Personally, Sightseers is my favourite of his work. Kill List is a close second, if not actually tied. This is the most vicious, without doubt— not without purpose. The story’s a mix of drama, crime, and horror. Two hitmen come across a mysterious cult working behind the back of society. Their new contract brings them into contact with the occult, as something greater’s at work. There are themes relevant to the current political moment, such as a longing for a mythical past, and modern fears of a homogeneous society urging conformity to ancient, outdated rituals and beliefs. In an age when Brexit and MAGA have taken over white idiot minds with cheap nostalgia reaching back to a non-existent time prior to the current era, this movie reads as better than ever.
“The past is gone.
The future is not yet here.
There is only ever this moment.”
Interesting how this movie came along about a handful of years before Brexit reared its head. Folk horror’s begun a resurgence, particularly over the past couple years in the midst of Brexit, as well as the nationalist sentiments in North America and other areas. This want for a return to the past – often a white past, or a utopic vision of a homogeneous past that never truly existed, only in the minds of xenophobes and racists – is perfect in theme for Gothic and folk horror, playing off old ghosts, old ways of life, and the isolation of the country versus the bustle of the city. All of this turns up throughout Kill List.
There’s an immediate call back to the past of Britain in the early stages of the screenplay. Jay (Neil Maskell), his son Sam (Harry Simpson), and his wife Shel (MyAnna Buring) play in the backyard with foam swords and shields. That night, young Sam asks dad for a King Arthur bedtime story. The invocation of a British legend combined with the sword is a quintessential image of the nation’s past. Right off, Wheatley evokes a Britain long ago/a Britain which may only exist in medieval romances. Jay himself seems directly connected to the past. In one scene, he refuses to get rid of a dead rabbit in the yard, cooking it for himself to eat, as if willing himself back to the land, old practises lost in the city.
Part of the dread in the story comes out of modern fears about the past. The terror – particularly for certain people/groups – of homogeneity in cities exists underneath the seemingly straight forward dramatic crime-thriller plot. Gradually there emerges a dominant culture/religion of suburban and urban areas, a fear of a conformity to a hidden social order/power already manipulating our lives below the surface. An image perfectly reflecting this city hierarchy, playing on class, is that of the tunnels below the mansion near the end— bourgeois private property concealing the hidden layers of power controlling society, literally represented in subterranean tunnels under a rich man’s home.
While the Christian priests, the MPs, and other prominent men are warped by the modern world into perversion, the pagan cultists work under cover of darkness to control or influence things— just as, in the past, they did the same to keep the weather appropriate, to call on the gods for a good harvest, and so on. Through their latest job, Jay and Gal witness the hidden social order at work, putting the latter in danger, whereas the former’s one of many “cogs” in the machinery.
Why Jay, exactly? Because he’s their perfect target.
“It’s not a Crusade…”
When Jay and Gal (Michael Smiley) go back to to try getting out of their obviously weird job, Gal asks what’s really going on. The Client (Struan Rodger) responds: “Reconstruction.” This might seem like a throwaway, nothing line, but it’s more than that. Reconstruction – in terms of paganism, which ties directly into the plot – has to do with groups trying to re-establish polytheistic religions in the modern world, essentially bridging the gap between past and present. Unbeknown to either Jay or Gal, the Client’s secretive cult are using Jay to their purposes, and Gal’s left as – for lack of a better term – collateral damage.
The first images and sounds of Kill List are those of decadence in suburbia— Jay and Shel scream at one another, arguing over personal finances, the husband especially upset his wife apparently buys useless things for the house. Soon, we begin sussing out more puzzle pieces: Jay hasn’t worked in months, a former soldier who’s been to Kiev and various places doing nasty work. At home in England he works as a hitman with his army pal Gal, the final resort of a man who’s given everything to his country and received little in return.
Soldiers have never been entirely treated perfectly. In modern times, the economics of the military-industrial complex have only made things worse, as veterans return home with mental health issues and money problems, offered little to no assistance. Jay experiences the worst between him and Gal, given he has a wife and a child. He and Shel are consistently torn apart by modern socioeconomic struggles, and, seeing as how Shel’s also former military, their lives have been political pawns in a way.
What the military has done to Jay in specific is indoctrinate him to a mode of thinking, rendering him malleable, as well as violent. This is necessary for the pagan reconstruction of the Client’s cult. Their targets are a priest, a politician, and a librarian who moonlights as a snuff filmmaker, all representative of various institutions being corrupted through modernity and urbanism. Jay becomes an Antichrist-like figure, through a pagan ceremony involving the three murders on the titular kill list, culminating in the murder of a hunchback, who turns out to be Jay’s own wife and child. The murders are a way of Jay using his institutionally ingrained violence but shedding all the modern institutions necessary to reconstruct Britain’s mythic past: the church, politics, a written history of human knowledge, and finally family. Once these are lost to him, Jay is crowned as the cult’s king.
“Sometimes God’s love can be hard to swallow”
“Not as hard as a dinner plate”
The best thing about Wheatley’s Kill List is the number of ways it can be read. Like any great work of cinema, or art for that matter, it’s open to many interpretations. Some linger on the image of the rainbow. Others, like myself, dig into the social, economic, and political meanings embedded in the filmic text. You can watch this as an excellent genre mashup, going from drama to crime to horror. You can watch this as an allegory for the new rise in a wish to return to a mythical past, a home that probably never existed outside of a white hive mind. Either way, it’s a masterpiece.
Kill List represents the modern day of Britain’s sociopolitical landscape, and America, too. Jay is a catalyst, lured into helping reconstruct the social order of paganism in modern day Britain. Jay is convinced to unwillingly give up all he has in order to be crowned king. Just like modern politicians convince the so-called common person to vote against their interests, the cult promises a return to a social order of the past if all modernity is sacrificed. In both cases – more often than not, it seems – the result is violence. You don’t have to look too far for the modern cases to parallel with this interpretation of the fiction. Wheatley does a great job of sowing the seeds of these themes into a fascinating, hypnotic, and disturbing contemporary horror movie full of images you won’t easily forget.