There’s an ever common phrase in cultural discourse that goes something like ‘such-and-such is a work of art that defies description.’ Or classification. Or definition. Or any number of vague excuses that tell you more about the critic’s lack of understanding (or engagement) with the material than it does about the actual piece of work. That being said, Kill List is a film that defies description. It is not only extremely difficult to pin down or label but it also it nearly impossible to go into any detail as to not spoil the, uh, fun. Therefore, I don’t fault others for relying on the safety of cliche crutches and/or ambiguous classifications. Let’s just start with this, you should definitely go see it but only if you’ve got a few days after to think about it [by think, read: obsess].
Now, I’m going to try as hard as I can to avoid anymore of the formulaic and conventional because the film does its very best, and fully succeeds, at doing the same. There may be elements lifted here and there, but what is important is that the film as a whole feels like a wholly original work. A tremendous (and scary) new voice. You can call this a hit-man or horror movie or whatever you want but what you surely can’t call it is stale. That being said, it definitely doesn’t go down easy, it was a crescendo of the gut-wrenching, mind-uh-fornicating and visceral (although often visually or aurally staccato). I felt the movie in my stomach the entire time it was playing in front of my eyes, and only later did it rush to my brain, torturing me to understand and get over what I just saw. What did I just see? One of the most interesting, compelling and, yes downright unsettling films of the year and one that I won’t soon forget.
Bare bones, Kill List is about a former soldier turned hit-man named Jay (Neil Maskell, in a terrifyingly intense portrayal – this man knows hot to walk at a tracking back camera) who’s coming back to the job because his family – wife and former soldier Shel (MyAnna Buring) and their son Sam (Harry Simpson) – is in financial trouble as a result of the recession. Enter his old partner in crime Gal (Michael Smiley) and a job. The kill list. Three names. Three kills. The Priest. The Librarian. The M.P. And the job’s done. Simple, yeah? Well, Ben Wheatley’s second feature film is anything but simple. It’s a calculated yet chaotic descent. A devastating look at the aftermath of a financial collapses and two unpopular wars on the public (and in this case, the returning soldiers’) psyche.
There are the basest animal instincts in all of us, just how far do we have to be pushed to bring them out? Convinced that what we’re doing is righteous and without consequence. In desperate times, how easily can we be convinced – brainwashed – into thinking that sometimes, even the most horrible things seem justified. Seem right. Seem, as the film states, transitional. Transitional in the sense that once you realize how far you’ve gone or what you’ve become, it’s too late, you’re part of the system. It’s hard to see anything but the immediate when the imagery, performances and narrative are so powerful and in your face, demanding your full attention but Wheatley is driving at something with all this madness. That is what genre filmmaking does at it’s finest. It offers artists a platform to critique our world through the safe aesthetic or narrative distance of being just a fantasy, just a horror flick, just pulp or ‘low brow.’ Sure, and Kill List is just another black-dramedy-hit man-horror-cult film. And it’s fucking great.
The film is haunting, twisted and demanding yet at times darkly funny – the banter between the hitters is often hilarious, as are some of the compositions – and always beautifully photographed even if is something repulsive. Wheatley and his DP Laurie Rose do an excellent job of also defying formal conventions and expectations, creating a nice visual parallel with the narrative. For example, they choose to open the film in close-ups and medium shots of a family fight before cutting out to wide shots of the rural English setting. The film is grainy, handheld and shaky when it needs to be but there are also moments of perfectly framed compositions, like Jay, through the window, seated perfectly center, enjoying his rabbit in the backyard or a low angle, long shot of a car park, with a foregrounded puddle blowing in the harsh winds. There’s also a stunning (and terrifying) chase sequence in a tunnel that’s feels at once as claustrophobic as Neil Marhsall’s The Descent and yet also evokes the beautiful frames of Carol Reed’s The Third Man.
Wheatley makes some interesting choices in what to show us – some sequences of brutal, intense, graphic violence – and what to withhold – like a scene where Jay stumbles across a disturbing video but we’re only privy to the reactions and sound, the rest is for us to imagine. The soundscape is so important to keep the unsettling and uncanny atmosphere alive and pulsing in your gut, whether the grinding score by Jim Williams (no relation to John… I don’t think) or even the diegetic noises that are, at times, downright eerie.
I can’t say anything more without giving too much away. It constantly plays with multiple genre conventions, homages and your expectations. I can’t even make some the cinematic references* for fear of spoiling too much. This is a film best seen without knowing what you’re getting into… but you should also be warned. Don’t go into this lightly. You’ll may lulled in by the half an hour that’s ripped right from the British Kitchen Sink or even Cassavettes’ Faces before everything changes with two knives – the first carving a mysterious symbol on the back of a bathroom mirror, the second a slashing mark in Jay’s hand. This is a cult film in every sense of the word. It is not for everyone. It will not appeal to the masses, but those that follow, those like me who were awed, will do so rabidly. One of the most damming things to say about a film is that it is forgettable. For better or worse, you will not forget Kill List.
Official synopsis: “Life is hard for an out-of-work hit man. Eight months after something went terribly wrong during a job in Kiev, Jay (Neil Maskell) has no gigs, no health insurance, mounting debts and a wife constantly on his case about money. His suburban life is quickly turning sour and his marriage is on the brink of total collapse.
When his business partner Gal (Michael Smiley) comes over for an intensely awk ward dinner, it becomes clear that he’s there to pressure Jay into taking a new assignment. Jay finds himself back in the game, with the promise of a big payoff after three assassinations, but pretty soon things begin to unravel and his paranoia plunges him right into the heart of darkness. As the mission gets stranger, Jay and Gal cross the line from hit men for hire to self-appointed angels of vengeance.”
Cheers to VIFF for including it, and many other gems, in the program.
* See Also (POTENTIAL SPOILERS): Straw Dogs, Rosemary’s Baby, First Blood, The Wicker Man, Pulp Fiction, Donnie Darko, Mulholland Drive, Nil by Mouth, Hot Fuzz…