Monday, 27 February 2012

Kill List (2011)

Country: UK

Few British genre efforts come with quite the degree of fanfare afforded to Ben Wheatley’s second film Kill List. But beneath the enthusiasm the prevailing trend to emerge from discussions of Kill List is that it’s an extremely divisive film. The critical notices have been patchy, but whatever one might think of the film, people are certainly talking about it. As a long time supporter of indigenous genre production I’m all for this. Any film that inspires discussion and argument is of benefit, especially in a film culture that sorely needs distinctive and generically progressive material. For many Ben Wheatley will be a new name, but his darkly humorous and dialogue driven debut effort Down Terrace (2009) marked him out as fresh new talent. In a way Wheatley was fortunate that Down Terrace slipped quietly away into the ether because viewing it will certainly prepare you for the style and tone of Kill List. The key ingredient both films have in common is a sense of rising tension. An atmosphere of menace, imperceptible at first, that steadily builds throughout both films, and culminates in moments of unexpected bloodshed and violence. There might be some who feel that the generic shift in the final third of Kill List unbalances and undermines proceedings, but in light of the simmering ambience of the previous hour the narrative had to go somewhere. That the writers (Wheatley himself and his partner Amy Jump) opt for the folk-horror territory of The Wicker Man (1973) is to be commended in my view.

As well as being an intriguing generic proposition Kill List is also a very effective essay on marital strife and the entrapment of bland domesticity. The first forty minutes of the film exist in a world of social realism, and are almost entirely situated within the household of married couple Jay (Neil Maskell) and Shel (MyAnna Buring). The harsh and unsympathetic lighting schemes adopted by cinematographer Laurie Rose is fused perfectly to a constricted and cluttered frame which indicates Jay’s lack of freedom due to a self imposed bout of unemployment. A vague reference to a previous job in Kiev is our first indication that Jay’s skills might be in something other than administration. There is the sense that the house and the frame itself are not big enough for the both of them. With the pressure of a young son adding to Jay’s sense of worthlessness, the building resentment reaches a pinnacle of rage during a dinner party. But time and again in Kill List these moments of surprising violence act as pressure valves. Anxiety and apprehension is released, but only for it to start building again almost immediately. The presence of Jay’s best friend and work partner Gal (Michael Smiley) is a mellowing force, but it’s clear that the demons that rage within Jay are desperate for escape, and are afforded the opportunity to do so when the two men take on a new assignment.

At this point Kill List makes its first shift when we discover the two men are hired killers. The film leaves behind the domestic drama that is almost entirely delivered by dialogue, and shifts into the realm of an ultra-violent gritty action movie. But threaded into the action is an increasingly hysterical and surreal tone. The first on the list is a priest who smiles benignly as his brains are blown out. The second a paedophilic librarian who thanks Jay again and again as he takes a hammer to him. Wheatley’s camera documents these sadistic brutalities in all their glory, the escalating violence is delivered unflinchingly, and at times Wheatley seems loathe to cut away. This is particularly difficult to stomach when Jay is pounding the librarians skull to a bloody pulp with a hammer. Gal meanwhile watches with mounting worry as his friend is unable to control the apoplectic fury that boils inside him. Because Wheatley has pulled the rug from under us by making Jay and Gal hired killers the film immediately becomes an unsafe viewing experience. But the fact it is now unsafe, and we are not sure where it’s going, actually prepares the audience for more moments of unexpectedness. So in a way the final moments are predictable because we are now attuned to Kill List’s internal unpredictably.

This is why the final shift in the generic typography of the movie didn’t work quite so well for me. Neither do all the various strands of conspiracy and manipulation that culminate in the final kill. I think on some level the screenplay is trying to be too clever for its own good. One gets the feeling that Wheatley and Jump want the audience to question all that has gone before, or maybe even watch the film again to pick up clues. The reality is that the final third of Kill List makes almost no sense at all. But that’s not to say that it isn’t welcome. The shift from the grey and lifeless urbanity of Jay and Gal’s world to a rural landscape that harbours a cult allows the film a brief moment to breathe and expand. Even if the dichotomy between the modernity of the city and the backwards nature of the countryside is an old and cliché riddled one. It works within a general climate of building surrealism, and affords the filmmakers a rare opportunity to do something visually interesting - however from a narrative standpoint it is totally baffling. But perhaps that was the filmmakers intention all along. Although both Jay and Gal are returning soldiers adapting to civilian life in their own ways, the directors assertion that this film is an allegory of the Iraq War is as baffling and nonsensical as the Race with the Devil (1975) finale! Frequently frustrating, and often challenging, Kill List is a very discordant British genre flick which will be loved by some and hated by others.

© Shaun Anderson 2012


  1. I'd not heard of Wheatley previously, but this title sounds really interesting. Thanks for the heads-up, Shaun.

  2. I hadn't heard of either this film or of this Wheatley's previous endeavor. In fact, when I first took a look at the poster art, I thought the lead was John Saxon! Anyway, I'm not a fan of talky picture usually, and this one sounds to be taxing. I'm also not a fan of how a lot of current, oh-how-I-hope-I-can-be-edgy filmmakers are, as you say: "... loathe to cutaway from" acts of violence. This does not make sense to me, and I suppose it never will. It's just another form of torture porn. I know they're trying to say something about the utter ugliness of brutal violence, but it still seems severe and overwrought for me. It's one of the major problems I had with DRIVE. I know it's suppose to be anti-violent by showing in-your-face, blood soaked violence, but that in away is incongruent. These aren't mainstream directors who were making westerns like peckinpah during the latter days of the studio era, they're young guys making follow-up films. It's a brutal, punishing act to the viewer, almost an attack or a sadistic assault. I can almost see the boners they're getting in their pants when they're staging, filming, and editing these scenes, rubbing their crotches in the editing bay, balancing on the knife's edge of creaming their jeans! And any filmmaker who makes a picture hopping that an audience member will "... maybe even watch the film again to pick up clues." is an egomaniacal piss-cock! Not that that's necessarily a bad trait in a director.

    See, you got me talking about this fucking film and I haven't even seen it!!! Damn you, Anderson!!!

  3. Good review!

    I have to say that I adored this movie! It was flawed no doubt, and perhaps tried a little too hard at times...but it kept me completely engrossed from start to finish. The editing style of the piece combined with that great score really created a genuine tension. The cast was very naturalistic and believable and the plot-- well... I still like you, I haven't quite figured that out. I do think that was the point though - each viewer attaching his or her own interpretation.

    Still one of the best British genre offerings in a long time. I look forward to seeing what Wheatley tackles next...

    Surprised to hear the director say that the film is an allegory for the Iraq war. It's something I certainly never tapped into while watching it...

  4. @ Johnny - Not at all buddy, always glad to be of service.

    @ Greg - I think there is a certain self-consciousness to KILL LIST, but it's extremely difficult to produce distinctive genre pictures in the UK. Only Hollywood has the means to shit out dozens of faceless genre films, less fortunate filmmaking nations (such as the UK) have to use their initiative a bit more. If this means a self-conscious effort to be controversial or edgy then I'm afraid so be it. The bottom line at the end of the day though is whether the film succeeds in what it sets out to do, and by and large KILL LIST does. I can't comment about DRIVE I haven't got around to that one yet. But you certainly do have a point (articulated in wonderful terms) about the tendency toward fetishistic 'torture porn' style violence and sadism. The use of such techniques in British cinema is merely an index of how successful a certain sub-genre of American film has been. Apologies for getting you all hot under the collar, I'll buy you a nice cool beer when I'm next in your neighbourhood!

    @ Lubbert - Yes it had its weaknesses and I highlighted a few of those in the review. But you're spot on about it being an engrossing film. The filmmakers draw you into three different spheres of representation; domestic social realism, the gritty action of a gangster film, and the folk-horror finale, and not once did these jarring shifts in tone jolt me out of the world of the film. One has to commend this, it's a tricky balancing act. It succeeds in doing so because of that unifying sense of building menace and tension....I gather Wheatley's next project is a comedy, which isn't all that surprising when one considers the often black and gallows humour of KILL LIST.

  5. Great review of this film. It's one of those films that takes us inside the main character's head, and I think the confusion, disruption etc is all part of this strategy. I was unsettled by it and think the characters/situation were easy to relate to.

  6. Great review! Like anyone who has seen this film you will inevitably construct an opinion of what if any was the point of Kill List. I have created such an opinion! There is one constant through-out and that is Jay's hunger to destroy anything that stands in his way, he does this with no remorse and in the end no real direction. His friend Gal say's that he kills for money and therefore its only a job, this is what separates these two Killers as Jay seems more Driven for a desire to descimate, not just take out is mark. One other recurring fact is the presence of some kind of Devil worshiping Covenant. This only fully emerges in the last quarter of the movie, yet appears from the start to the conclusion of the film. Examples Gal's dinner date placing a Hex behind Jay & Shel's bathroom mirror, the old guy in the hotel who hires the two killers by doing a blood pact with Jay or the strange Dr Jay visits when comes home from one of his kills. Finally the way everyone reacts when Jay kills them especially the paedophilic Librarian not only thanking him, but also conveying a sort of idolizing faun as if Jay himself is something to worship / fear, and all this while beating the mans brains out. This leads to my belief that the central premise of the film has always' been to enlist Jay into the Covenant, possibly with the killing of his family being the last deed needed to fulfil this path. (On another note I may of seen this wrong but when Jay fights the Hunchback at the end of the movie & the cloak / mask are pulled away to reveal who he had just slay. It seemed to me that Shel's last expression is not of shock or Horror that her husband has murdered her & their son, but is actually a smile "altogether an incredibly odd film".

  7. I think your reading of the film James is entirely accurate. There are hints scattered throughout which support your view. The question of what is the point of KILL LIST remains harder to substantiate. I found it most interesting as an exercise in genre, especially in light of British cinema's ongoing struggle to create successful genre pictures. Its generic schizophrenia seems to speak of a culture that continues to struggle with the question of marrying genre to specific British socio-political concerns. KILL LIST manages to do this, but in a way that is highly divisive. The narrative/plot that you speak of is in many ways the least intriguing aspect of the film, and is full of holes and inconsistencies that the movie can easily collapse under the weight of it. No doubt we'll discuss it further over a pint of ale soon!


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