Ben Wheatley’s first film, Down Terrace, was fantastic. But one great film does not an extraordinary director make. With the submission of Kill List as his sophomore effort, I think it’s safe to say that this guy is something special. As a critic and a genre fan, I wade through a lot of mediocre films searching for the ones that remind me why I fell in love with horror in the first place. I rarely feel so elated walking out of a theatre as I did leaving this film. Now that, my friends, is a f*****g movie.
Kill List begins much the same way as Down Terrace, in familial territory. Except something violent and sinister is behind these otherwise archetypal squabbles. Jay (Neil Maskell) and Shel (MyAnna Buring) are married with a young son. They’ve been experiencing cash flow problems and anger management issues ever since Jay was injured “on the job” in Kiev. When longtime confidant and partner, Gal (Michael Smiley) brings his new girlfriend over for dinner one night, they witness some (at times amusing) spousal nitpicking that leads to Jay abruptly clearing the table. After the dust settles and the wine continues to flow, Gal takes the opportunity to entice Jay back to work. The job is contract killing and the money is good.
We soon learn that this isn’t the first time at the hitman dance for either of these men. This information does little to blight them. After all, the guys their clandestine employers have tasked them to snuff have done bad things. “Just for the record,” justifies Jay, “I’ve hardly done any terrible s**t.” Be that as it may, something happened in Kiev that has kept Jay out of work. It has also led to a wee dependence on painkillers and a deep-seeded resentment of Christianity.
As they make their way through the titular list, Jay and Gal start to realize this job has some pretty enormous strings attached. It’s so much fun finding out what those strings entail at relatively the same pace as our protagonists, that I really hope people manage to avoid spoilers. That’s not so easy to do these days.
The performances in Kill List are terrific all around. Neil Maskell moves effortlessly between bitter and despondent-yet-devoted family man to merciless assassin with a mounting vigilante streak. When he’s in the heat of the moment, Jay is not unlike Garth Ennis’ Punisher. He’s merciless and derives more than a little satisfaction from killing people he deems “the bad guys.” He’s not content to just put a nice tidy bullet in the victim’s head either, opting instead to bash skulls and faces into a gruesome pulp. Michael Smiley is beautifully adept at playing the thoughtful gangster with a glint of mischief behind his eyes. MyAnna Buring brings a rare humanizing complexity to the standard role of the nagging wife. By the time the blood starts flowing, the characters have shown such warmth, passion and familiarity toward one another that you root for them even as their body count rises.
It’s difficult to tell how much of the film was scripted because the performances are so natural. Nonetheless, co-writers Wheatley and Amy Jump certainly deserve praise for creating some very real, intensely compelling characters. Cinematographer, Laurie Rose, uses the realism of the hand-held camera to suck us right into their lives, whilst managing to maintain a lovely cinematic look. The presence of a serendipitous rainbow doesn’t hurt. This look is something that Steven Soderbergh has been trying to achieve for years.
I hesitate to divulge anything more because it’s best to experience Kill List as a fly on the wall. There are clues planted along the way but there is little chance you’ll guess the exact ending unless you’ve been spoiled. You’ll likely wish to revisit the film to spot everything you may have missed. Still, I don’t think it’s fair to call the ending a twist. Wheatley isn’t M. Night Shyamalan. He’s not trying to trick you. He’s just following the all-important, yet frequently broken narrative rule: Show, don’t tell. By the time you’ve figured out what’s going on, it’s not so much a surprise as a revelation. That’s a much more rewarding experience than being duped.