Written by Ben Wheately & Amy Jump
Directed by Ben Wheately
While it's not uncommon for a film to mix genres, I've never experienced a film like Kill List which divides its three acts into three separate and distinct works. Equal parts domestic drama, crime thriller and head scratching horror it's not until the final few convoluted minutes that Kill List loses its balance on the genre defying high wire act. It's a very good film that could have been great but for it's maddening ambiguity and refusal to tie seemingly relevant threads together to the work as a whole. As a warning, there are mild spoilers below the jump, and I'd recommend seeing this film cold. Feel free to bookmark us and come back once you've seen the film.
The film opens midway through a domestic dispute between Jay (Neil Maskell) and Shel (MyAnna Buring) . It's a common source of strife in this economy: the savings has dried up since Jay's been out of work. In between red faced screaming at one another, the couple pause just long enough to assure their young son they love him before Shel continues her verbal evisceration of her husband. While Jay's line of work is unclear at first, the evening's dinner party with old friend Gal (Michael Smiley) and his new girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer) peel back layers of the past one at a time. We learn that Jay and Gal served together in Iraq as part of a British special ops team, only to return home and setup a kill-for-hire operation. A botched job in Kiev led to Jay's self-imposed hiatus, only now Gal has an offer and Shel is eager for her husband to accept.
One bizarre meeting meeting with a mysterious stranger later leaves Jay with a pile of cash, three contracted kills and a massive knife wound on his palm. While Jay and Gal set out to take care of business, it becomes clear that despite recruiting his friend back in to the fold, Gal no longer possess the temperament for this line of work, while Jay enjoys it too much. The first hit on a Priest goes off without a hitch, but the second contract, involving a child pornographer, is where things start to go hinkey. Left alone with Jay for a moment, the bloodied and battered “librarian” thanks Jay for his service, and that he “knows who he really is”. Angered and confused, this sets Jay off on a grim violent path. It's clear that Jay's past-the wartime traumas, the previous kills for hire and the unspoken events in Kiev-have turned him in to a little ball of hate that destroys anything it bounces off of. It's not hard to see the connection between the verbal abuse Jay suffers (and doles out) at home and the savagery he tears into his victims with.
While Kill List may not be an all out gore fest, there are moments that serve to remind man is but a lumpy meat sack housed with inadequate protection for the violence and dangers the world throws our way. A scene around a kitchen table that involves creative use of a hammer is especially not for the weak of heart or stomach.
The third act takes a sharp turn towards pure horror territory, though it's difficult to discuss it without spoiling the film. I'll briefly say that Jay's unwitting journey into madness draws parallels to one of the pillars of British horror cinema and that a sequence that finds the hitmen trapped and hunted in the claustrophobic confines of a tunnel is harrowing and an example of terror at its best. The film's color palette, mired in dull grays to begin with, further darkens, and many of the closing minutes take place on a near pitch black screen, adding to the confusion and tension.
The problem with the final act of its film stems from Wheatley's stubborn refusal to shed any light as to why events unfold as they do. Again, I'm all for a film keeping its audience guessing throughout, but there needs to be a payoff. The conclusion to the film leads me to believe Wheatley had the closing moments in mind but couldn't quite make the puzzle pieces fit to get us there. Kill List is littered with small moments that are puzzling as they happen, yet you take it on faith it will snap together in the last reel. Unfortunately this doesn't happen and you're left with far too many questions: Why does Fiona carve that symbol behind the bathroom mirror and what is she doing later on having rinks with Shel and waving outside Jay's hotel? Why are the people on Jay's list so grateful to die at his hands? What was the ultimate purpose the illuminati pulling the strings had for Jay? The easy answer is Jay's past crimes have caught up to bite him in the ass, but that seems too pat.
Up to the closing moments there's a lot to admire about Kill List, in particular the strong performances from its four leads. Maskell and Smiley enjoy an easygoing chemistry that make for some much needed lighthearted moments in between the madness. Maskell also enjoys a sweet relationship with his young son Sam (Harry Simpson) which allows his sharp edges to soften just enough to allow for an air of sympathy for the hardened killer. Buring is equally fascinating to watch and the casual discussions between her and Jay regarding him getting back into the killing business occur with the sense of normalcy my wife and I might discuss our dinner plans.
Kill List may handle the concept of the waking nightmare better than any film of this past decade . Wheatley leaves the audience in every bit as much of the dark as its two leads. When it becomes obvious the two are in way over their heads Gal wants out but Jay insists pressing on. yet its clear each kill, contracted or not, only serves to further severe the link between his mind and reality. As for the audience, we're left clutching to the his shirt sleeve while he drags us further down his spiral, with no idea how things are going to turn out. The film's score culls scraping and discordant industrial noises, low frequency thrums and animal wails and adds to the surreal, nightmarish power of the film. Harsh editing cuts serve to keep the audience off balance and never allow one to get ahead of the story. The thickened pudding Yorkshire accents of every character that rendered dialogue half decipherable also adds to the dreamlike quality of the film, those this might be a natural byproduct rather than creative choice.
The ending leaves tremendous room for debate. Wheatley is on record saying his personal nightmares influenced the script, which warrants the question how much of the film takes place in Jay's fevered head? While I'm not one hundred percent on board with this theory, moments in the early goings, particularly a backyard romp with Jay and family, are eerily mirrored by its end. Combined with the booze and painkillers Jay uses to treat an infection, and at least two occasions where a someone snaps him awake, it's at least worth examining. Perhaps the film serves as nothing but a simple allegory for soldiers returning from conflict suffering from PTSD. Ultimately, the films mixture of horror, mystery, drama and gallows humor lift Kill List above standard genre fare. It's a film that has stuck with me, and I find myself turning theories and interpretations over and over in my head, discarding each one before latching on to something new. For those who look to the cinema to offer a change and a chance to broaden one's perspective, Kill List proves more than up to the challenge.
Kill List is now playing select markets, including the Brattle Cinema in Harvard Square, and is also available via VOD, iTunes, Amazon and Vudu