Kill List (2011)

2016 #51
Ben Wheatley | 92 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 18

I appear to be coming at director Ben Wheatley’s films in reverse order (having covered A Field in England in 2013 and Sightseers in 2014), and now I reach, not his feature debut (that’ll be ‘next time’, I guess), but certainly the film that brought him wider attention.

To describe too much of the plot of Kill List, or to even name its genres, is to give away some of its mystery. It’s a problem for reviewers, and has been since it came out — I read an interview with Wheatley where he said he didn’t envy their job, trying to accurately assess and ‘sell’ the film without actually telling people why they should watch it! The marketing people go a little way towards that for us, though, billing it as a horror movie when it seems to be nothing of the sort for a very long time.

It begins in that classic British tradition, the “kitchen sink” drama. Jay (Neil Maskell) and his wife (MyAnna Buring) argue about the fact he’s not got a job and the money’s run out. It becomes clear something happened in Jay’s recent past to spook him out of work. Then his mate Gal (Michael Smiley) comes round with a new girlfriend, Fiona (Emma Fryer), for one of moviedom’s more uncomfortable dinner parties. Gal talks Jay into joining him on a new job (there’s some criticism of the film for being a “one last job” movie, but I don’t recall it being presented as that — Gal talks him back into work, not for a definitively final go-round. Maybe I missed something); elsewhere, Fiona’s actions hint at something more… unusual going on.

Kill List mixes in its genre elements — and they’re elements from a couple of different genres at that — so gradually that, as I said, it’s hard to discuss them without spoiling the film. (Much like the film itself, this review is getting progressively more revealing, so jump off when you’ve had enough.) It’s kind of a compilation of traditional British movie genres: we begin with kitchen sink, then discover we’re actually watching a crime film, before the final act swerves (though not without foreshadowing) into folk horror. The skill of Wheatley, and his co-writer Amy Jump, is in not making these transitions too implausible. That’s not to say they’re not surprising, but the doom-laden music, inexplicable proclamations by some characters, and a couple of very strange events should all clue the viewer in to the film not being a common-or-garden hitman flick.

Even as the latter, it is, again, very “low-key British”. It follows through on its domestic setup, presenting the mundanities of the profession — it’s the kind of film where the dealmaking and mission-giving are dealt with in a dialogue-free montage, but we do see characters discussing how they’ll get out of the hotel lobby without an injury being noticed, who’s going to clean up the blood in the sink, and the quality of the hotel’s free toiletries. The biggest threat the characters initially face is their credit card being declined, which might, potentially, later, draw attention to them.

The final act is naturally where the film reveals its overarching purpose… or rather doesn’t reveal, because there are a shortage of answers here. It’s a lot more straightforward than A Field in England, but it still offers few (or, some would say, no) explanations for what’s occurred. According to Wheatley, the screenplay was more explicit about what was happening and why, and so was some of what they shot, but he cut back on the exposition to leave it up to audience interpretation. This isn’t a film to passively watch and have everything explained, but even viewers prepared to do a little work for themselves may find it frustrating.

Nonetheless, there is striking, unnerving imagery to be found during the movie’s climax, Wheatley and regular DP Laurie Rose using the pitch-black nighttime setting to create dread rather than merely accidentally hide things, as so many under-lit movies seem to nowadays. The handheld camerawork and jumpy cutting that earlier in the film was just a little New Wave-y comes into its own here, aligning us with Jay’s disorientation and confusion. While the ultimate result is arguably predictable, to get too caught up in the minutiae of whether it’s a twist or not is to miss the point. What the point is… well, that’s debatable, but I don’t think it’s meant to be a twist for the sake of a twist. (Others disagree.)

The odd mash-up of domestic drama, mundane crime, and folk horror by all rights shouldn’t work, so credit is definitely due for the movie’s flow. Memorable sequences keep it ticking over throughout — and so they should: taking inspiration from the likes of Kubrick and Stephen King, Wheatley started from specific images and worked backwards to a plot. Here, I think that method has been effective. The abstruse ending won’t be to everyone’s taste, but the journey there is worth experiencing.

4 out of 5

It’s Ben Wheatley Night on Film4 this evening, beginning with Kill List at 10:45pm, followed by Sightseers at 12:35am and A Field in England at 2:15am.

Wheatley’s new movie, High-Rise, is currently showing in scattered preview screenings around the UK (mainly in London, because of course), and is on general release from next Friday, March 18th.

5 thoughts on “Kill List (2011)

  1. Awesome review 🙂 Kill List is VERY hard to describe! I bloody love it though, definitely my favourite Wheatley film (my second favourite is Down Terrace so I hope you enjoy that next!!).

    I love the atmosphere, the way it constantly feels as though something dreadful is about to happen. The characters are great. The violence is SO realistic as well (especially when he cuts his hand and beats up the pervert). It’s such a great film, I could honestly watch it whenever, over and over.

    “Dear John letter”

    🙂 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I preferred Sightseers overall, but Kill List is definitely unique. You’re so right about the atmosphere — you can feel something is going to go very wrong, and there’s so much tension in being made to wait for it.


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