KILL LIST Gave Me the Wicked Bad Willies
British filmmaker Ben Wheatley gave audiences a look behind the suburban crime curtain with his strong 2009 debut Down Terrace. Wheatley’s latest film, Kill List, takes another look at the delicate intricacies of domestic life then burns the house down. By the time the end credits started rolling I was reeling – damn near suffocated by the smothering atmosphere of pure dread. Over its 90 minutes, the Kill List shifts from a Mike Leigh-style family drama to terrifying folk horror that left me shivering. You’ll never guess how it ends as the film’s beginning is made up of the marital bickering of middle class Englanders Jay (Neil Maskell) and Shel (MyAnna Buring).
Jay is an ex-soldier and contract killer who recently screwed his back up on a job in Kiev. His wife Shel thinks Jay’s back trouble is all in his head and her role as sole bread winner while Jay is shacked up is putting serious financial strain on the family. Caught in the middle of their knock-down drag-out bickering is their 10-year-old son. Jay’s ex-army buddy Gal (Michael Smiley) comes over for dinner with his new sweetheart Fiona (Emma Fryer), but Jay and Shel can’t hide their lingering anger at each other and the dinner ends with a bang (and with Jay attempting the ol’ tablecloth trick). Fed up with the financial strain and Shel’s incessant bitching, Jay accepts an offer by Gal to take on a new contract – a new “kill list.”
This is where I’ll shutup about Kill List‘s plot. To go on would only spoil the hurricane to hell that goes down during the film’s stunning final hour. The menace and creeping dread starts building up from the moment we sit down for dinner and reaches its apex in one of the most insane final sequences I’ve seen in forever. It’s like someone threw a honey badger in a film pedant’s dining room. Wheatley deserves some serious praise for pulling this off without having the film fly off the rails. There’s a lot of elements at play here including impressive cinematography from DP Laurie Rose. Then there’s the performances, which used a lot of improvised dialogue (the cast graciously gets a writing credit for their work).
Neil Maskell delivers a haunting performance as Jay – a killing machine that moves like a clenched fist. Jay’s got some demons in his past that Wheatley leaves up to our imaginations to fill in. He starts the film as a bad man and only gets worse. This is no redemption story about an aging hit man – more like a spiraling nightmare about a hit man thrown to the lions. MyAnna Buring is terrific as the suffering wife. Just like with Jay’s demons, we’re never given a clue what Shel thinks of Jay’s line of niche work. This may be the one flaw with Kill List: it’s a little too ambiguous when it comes to its characters. I’m perfectly happy not completely knowing what the hell is going on during the film’s enigmatic climax, but I would have liked to get some more dish on the characters.
What Wheatley accomplished with Kill List is exceptional. It’s one of the most genuinely scary and shocking films in years. It’s a goodie bag of domestic drama, folk horror, the occult, and unflinching graphic violence. Wheatley leaves a lot of unanswered questions but a second viewing of the film actually surfaced some nice little details that helped connect some of the dots for me. The complete shift in genre might rub some people the wrong way but those people are vapid idiots in my book and “they should suffer.”
Kill List is coming to Video on Demand courtesy of IFC on January 4th. Wheatley’s Down Terrace is currently available on Netflix Watch Instantly. This review first appeared earlier today on the mighty mighty Mishka Bloglin.