It's better the Devil you know ...
The jobbing mundanity of the hit-man profession has been done so many times before, of course, that you would wonder precisely what could be said about it that was new. But filmmaking husband and wife team, Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump, have made a commendable effort at combining two new angles to it that make Kill List stand out from the pack. With a first act that observes, with cold detachment, the kitchen-sink dramas of modern relationships burdened with the guillotine of financial debt – the arguments, the regrets and the simmering resentments sitting alongside laughter, booze and nostalgic reverie – you would think that the makers are treading down a similar path to their previous film, Down Terrace, and merely embracing the harsh study of contemporary Brit drama that is oh-so-familiar to us all. But this is not the full picture. Not by a long shot. After a meandering introduction that allows us into the home of Jay (Neil Maskell) and his wife Shel (MyAnna Buring), showing us the rocky romance that the two enjoy and the wacky, occasionally derailed bond they have with Jay's best friend and business associate, Gal (Michael Smiley, who, alongside a number of other faces seen here, was also seen in Down Terrace), the film shifts up a gear with almost subliminal alchemy into something much more sinister.
Both Jay and Gal are ex-Forces. Both have skills that they have carried over from their tours of duty. And both have become highly paid contract killers to combat the drudgery and poverty of civvie-life. “The recession in the 80's was much more glamorous!” Shel prods her pistol-packing hubby, too content with the lifestyle they've been leading to allow his emotional hangups to get in the way. You see, although they work well as a team, something terrible happened on their last job – a botched hit in Kiev – and Jay is now haunted by it. They haven't worked in months … and Shel is understandably getting on her husband's case because they need the money. Thus, the two men accept a new mission from a shadowy and nameless client (Struan Rodger) who has the uncanny desire to sign the deal as a pact made in blood – his own and Jay's. They are given a list of names of the people they have to despatch, the titular Kill List, and, methodically and without ceremony, the pair undertake their mission, albeit with some reservations and possibly a few demons in the closet.
Seemingly unconnected victims “thank” Jay for executing them. One appears to know who he is, although Jay has never seen the man before. Uncovering a terrible gang of child pornographers in the course of their task, Jay snaps and decimates the lot of them. Things seem to have gone too far, literally dragging Jay into the depths of paranoia and darkness, the shades of Kiev looming large over the duo. Spectral ladies waving to him from the night, a strange rash appearing on his body, and a totally surreal session with an unfamiliar doctor are not the usual effects his profession has upon him. The pair begin to get cold feet. But, to their growing horror, they find that they cannot simply back out of the deal … and things then hurtle to a completely harrowing final act that successfully flips the rug that you have been standing on and deposits you squarely and unmercifully in the black heart of occult fury. Many have said that the finale of the film just comes out of nowhere and is starkly at odds with the plot being unravelled beforehand, but they cannot have been paying much attention. The clues are all there … and even if there is a sudden switch of tactics, it is meant to shake us up as much as it does our semi-heroic hit-men. We only know a fraction more than they do. Well, that's surely how Wheatley and Wife would like us to take it.
But by employing such a game-changing strategy as this, they must know they run the risk of losing a proportion of the audience – people who may have been totally rapt right up until then. Still, you have to admire someone having the courage of their convictions and not just taking the easy option.
And it would seem that their gamble paid off. Kill List played well to film festival audiences earlier in the year, and won some rave reviews during its cinematic run. It comes emboldened with glowing quotes about how effective its “twist” is, and citing it as “a cult classic in the making” etc, and the film positively bathes in rapturous plaudits from a lot of people who, I believe, really should know a great deal better. You see, whilst the film is very good indeed, it is most certainly not the Second Coming of Brit Horror that was once promised by Neil Marshall, whose Dog Soldiers and The Descent (which also starred the brilliant MyAnna Buring) I absolutely championed as being the spearhead of home-grown terror, but who subsequently proved himself to be a soulless, self-indulgent rip-off merchant with his next two features. Nor is it the “Best British Thriller In Years” as the poster and packaging loudly proclaim. In fact, the screenplay doesn't really hold up to scrutiny, leaving a vast number of loose ends floating about in the ether, some elements that simply don't add up, a conclusion that makes nightmare sense the first time you see it but swiftly loses coherence once you think about it, and, to be honest, the notion of a hand-picked victim of ghoulishly grim inevitability is about as old a chestnut as you can find. So, really speaking, there isn't anything here that hasn't been done before. And, perhaps, a lot better.
Nevertheless, the film is exceptionally good at lurking about in the shadows, both figuratively and metaphorically, and it certainly thrives on creating a tense, yet authentic tone of all-permeating evil. We are steered along a treacherous path, alongside two characters that we know we shouldn't actually like – yet we can't help ourselves siding-with – and the claustrophobic scenario plays out with chilling and inescapable intimacy. A low-budget and real locations dotted around the North of England aids the film in attaining that crucial sense of things happening right around the corner from you, and proves that you don't need gothic mansions, lost footage, shaky-cam delirium or endless torture-porn to place audiences right in-amidst the drama. Wheatley has to be commended for not rushing things and for allowing the situation to play out with an air of ambiguity. We don't know who to trust, and our belief that strings are being yanked in every direction and that the wool is being pulled over our eyes as well as Jay's and Gil's is palpable. With a slow-burn attitude, Wheatley is able to apply the thumbscrews with relentless dedication, creating unsettling frisson in even the most commonplace of environments and, most remarkably, allowing his two main characters real space in which to breathe. As unpalatable as their trade may be, we totally understand that this is what they do – what they have to do in order to get by and, ironically enough, to maintain some semblance of normality in their lives. And that is not an easy task to pull off.
But, as exciting as what is destined to be considered something of a Marmite finale actually is, it is also far too over-the-top to sit convincingly with all that has gone before, a narrative trap that Daniel Samm fell into as well, with his scary possession mockumentary The Last Exorcism. Don't get me wrong, though. I do like the ending, but to lavish it with praise as being shocking and unexpected and even, God help us, groundbreaking is to do horror-devotees a rather large disservice.
Although I won't discuss the climax of the story, suffice to say that it pays grotesquely poetic justice to an innocent family game witnessed earlier on, it would be wrong not to make mention of the genre-swivel that the film takes. I said that Wheatley doesn't rush things … but the problem is that after such a tremendous build-up in which he keeps tight control of his story, he then blunders through the last act as though all the demons of Hell are snapping at his heels. By design this all may be, but the momentum becomes quite silly, the editing choppy, the explanation left dangling just out of reach. You can sense Wheatley becoming breathless with his own excitement, galloping towards the end and dropping little plot-points as he thunders along. He talks in his commentary about bits of dialogue getting snipped out during this section, and these words may well have provided us with some necessary linkage to what is really happening … and why.
But however you take the final act, you should find that the imagery and the mood lingers in the mind. The dialogue elsewhere, which is decidedly un-arch and grounded in real-life small talk and gallows humour-under-fire, is often rambling and vague – but this adds to our concerned involvement. The cast aren't spouting movie-speak. The liberal punctuation of F-bombs is far more grounded in authentic chatter than anything that Scorsese's Mob delivered in Goodfellas or Casino. We often feel as though we are eavesdropping upon these people, rather than being led by the hand by them. Gil, especially, is immensely likeable and down to earth.
When he comes round to Jay's for a dinner party, bringing with him a new girlfriend, Emma Fryer's raven-haired Fiona, all seems marvellously dysfunctional. We feel just as uncomfortable as the guests when the hosts erupt into a rafter-loosening slagging match, but when the dust settles, we are just as content to join in the all-round giggle that rounds the night out. However, in a beautifully understated moment, Fiona goes to the bathroom and, rather inexplicably, carves a satanic symbol on the back of the mirror. Dropping such Ken Loach-meets-Shane Meadows material for a second in such a way superbly wrong-foots us, and it is then that you become aware of the film's dark and smothering ambience, something that has actually been there all along, pooling in the eyes of the characters and filtering through the make-do, downbeat aura of desperation. It is during these less overt moments of disquiet that the film is at its most soul-ensnaring.
Occasionally rearing its head, is that refreshing brand of Brit humour. The limbo-lethargy of checking into hotels and driving long-distance – the province of the country-wide sales executive – is detailed in its chronic banality, even though when these two come to town heads will usually roll, or just meet with horribly sticky impacts. In one telling scene a cluster of born-again Christian therapists have an impromptu Jesus-jamming session over the breakfast table in a motorway hotel and incur the wrath of a seriously unamused Jay, whose reverse litany is the complete opposite of what the group are preaching. You can't help but laugh though, in spite of the threats he doles out to such charitable peace-mongers … because if something similar struck up on the table opposite you after a long haul and a lousy night's kip, you'd feel exactly the same way. Given the direction in which we are headed, you could argue that this is a rather heavy-handed statement of impending damnation, but I think that the interlude works pretty well as an acerbic aside to the savagery that regularly crops up. “Jimmi Hendrix – you ain't!”
Gaff-lovers may like to spot Jay redressing the wrong wounded hand at one point. Thanks to my wife for picking up on that!
I love the fact that neither Jay nor Gil look like the conventional ex-squaddie hard-men that most other films of this type would have, no doubt, recruited. They are supremely confident and professional in what they do but they are also a pair of argumentative, guilt-tripping layabouts who would, no doubt, be football hooligans and wife-beaters under other circumstances. They don't look like the usual tough guys with haunted pasts that movies so love to depict, but this only makes their increasingly bizarre contract, and their reactions to it, all the more interesting to watch unfold. But let's not forget the ladies. It is also great to see how well Buring handles weaponry at one point, double-tapping with brutally convincing efficiency. Pertinently, we have seen a photograph of her in her own military regalia and heard about her time in the Swedish Army, so we know that she hasn't just picked up a gun and suddenly found that latent Ripley gene in her DNA. The fact that Buring is, indeed, Swedish, lends yet more authenticity to her character, especially when we hear her utter a goading obscenity towards some attackers during a traumatic sequence later on. And her loving, yet forceful attachment to Jay is also very well grounded and believable. Like her male counterparts, there is no cliché in her actor's arsenal.
I've already alluded to it, but one thing that people need to be aware of is that the film is incredibly violent. This element will smack you around the face with a stunningly hammer-blunt matter-of-factness, its shock-value enhanced greatly because of the casual and low-key manner with which it is dealt. One seemingly well-earned execution is especially drawn-out and some of its visceral details are incredibly realistic to behold. It isn't pleasant to watch, but you have to hand it to Wheatley for making us want to see it in all its gory glory and to hear the terrible agonies being suffered. We have stabbings, beatings and shootings galore, though the film still feels strangely quiet and intimate despite such casual atrocities. This set-piece mayhem is wonderfully constructed and packs an enormous wallop and yet Wheatley manages not to sensationalise any of it … until we reach the wacky denouement, which trades on the hit-men's fire-and-move abilities and courage in a situation of extreme adversity. Watch especially how Smiley's Gil snaps into full-on escape-and-evasion mode, with head-lamp, shotgun and a ferocious adapt-or-die attitude to his surroundings. For some reason I am inclined to believe in him much more than, say, Clive Owen or even Jason Statham (both of whom I love in such roles) simply because he doesn't look like a movie-star soldier. Maskell, on the other hand, may still look like a soap-opera bit-parter but he exudes an eerie calmness when going about his violent day-to-day business that totally epitomises the suburban dad who just happens to have a hobby of all-out thuggery. Of course, he is no stranger to such modern-day reactionary characters, having appeared in The Football Factory and Rise Of The Footsoldier, but his rock 'n' roll relationship with Shel and with his young son, Sam (played with precocious naturalism by Harry Simpson) is very credible. I've heard people dismissing the scene where he cooks up and chows down on a rabbit that he has found freshly slain on his lawn, though. But I recall having to do something very similar with roadkill during my own stint with the Armed Forces, so I'm with him on that one. Pass me a spoon, Jay! And some ketchup. Mmmm.
To complement this ever deepening darkness and moral quagmire, Jim Williams provides a suitably unnerving and decidedly un-melodic score that drapes doom-laden pulses and drones over the otherwise subdued soundscape. In fact, the film would be surprisingly reticent, gunfire and bone-hammering aside, if it wasn't for such imposing sonic clamour that hovers ominously at the threshold before swirling in to submerge you. It certainly suits the disturbed mindset of Jay and the increasingly odd framework within which he is operating.
Wheatley and Jump, which sounds like a blackly comical firm of solicitors (or a brewery, perhaps), are canny enough to realise that leaving a lot of elements unspoken, or unclarified is the best way to go with such material, even if this ultimately nudges the story off into an unsignposted Twilight Zone. The overall narrative is deliberately open to viewer conjecture, and there will be a fair number of people who will assume that the whole thing could well be a symbolic descent into Jay's personal madness in the wake of what happened in Kiev. Well, the beauty of this is that it is entirely up to each of you how you choose to interpret the tale and what precisely might be going on. Nothing you come up with, however, will be particularly new or unique with regards to a genre so twisted that it can summon-up the ghosts of Twin Peaks, Don't Look Now and possibly even The Sixth Sense and Dead Man's Shoes, all of which have a bearing on how Wheatley and Jump have crafted their wilfully squalid and eye-popping tale of two men who have become “cogs” in something far beyond their control.
By the nature of the films referenced in the next paragraph, an element of spoilerage could be inferred, so you may want to skip over it.
Well, undeserved hyperbole and justified praise put to one side for a moment, Kill List is not going to surprise many genuine horror fans who will see what's coming from a mile away. Everyone knows by now of the story's Wicker Man vibe, but occult-buffs will also be able to name-check many other diabolical entries too. We have nods to Jack Starrett's exciting 1975 occult-thriller Race With The Devil, Polanski's classic Rosemary's Baby and the incredibly gooey The Devil's Rain and even Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, and there is more than a touch of Angel Heart thrown in to the bubbling cauldron of underworld inevitability, and then we have Hammer's recent Wake Wood, which employed a similar hidden society of taboo-breakers and doomed characters. Whilst all of this is extremely welcome, I found the sudden collision of the genres, despite all the clues that had been provided along the way, a little too jarring … and, like many people, I knew that it was going to happen. I suspect, also, that the filmmaking couple took note from a seriously vicious reveal in A Serbian Film to aid in their devastating conclusion. Thus, Kill List runs the risk of being title-ticking experience for some buffs. Though I strongly believe that the film is smart enough to surmount these covert similarities, and occasionally even blatant steals.
Therefore, even with so many glaring influences, Kill List succeeds with a dark and ominous atmosphere that seeps into your bones. There is something inordinately creepy about watching the highly orchestrated fate of someone being devilishly manipulated, and who isn't freaked-out by the sight of Black Magic covens dancing with the Devil in the pale moonlight? Ben Wheatley – and let's face it, that's a name to conjure with – shows a real talent for gritty realism, and allowing his cast to improvise displays a confidence that is appealing. But he also deserves credit for thrusting the occult so bludgeoningly into the face of a genre that has disrespected it for too long. In recent years, this has been a vastly neglected or, rather, ineptly rendered facet of Horror Cinema. Wheatley and Jump bring the dark arts back into vogue and, most impressively, they do so with only the barest of imagery - just a few masks and flaming torches, some moaning and a Blair Witch style symbol that keeps cropping up if you are paying attention - and the most minimal of explanation.
Kill List is a good, bravura exercise in both suburban angst, marital decay and sweaty-palm dramatics and it may possibly reveal a new hope for contemporary Brit Horror. Although I once shouted that about Neil Marshall … so what do I know? Let's just hope that Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump can build upon their film's critically adored foundation without falling for the hastily over-strewn and patently unwarranted hype that has come their way.
Nowhere near as good as many critics claim, then, but Kill List is still worthy of your attention.
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