Kill List, much like Ben Wheatley's superb debut feature Down Terrace, deals with an unstable man, driven deeper into insanity by obligations to family and work. It's an interesting way to look at family dysfunction, filtered through a world of criminality. It takes very relatable ideas about stress and sometimes tenuous family bonds and takes them to their extremes.
These moments of domestic disharmony are captured with an unflinching realism and ugliness, but when the underlying issue is that he refuses to murder people for money, it becomes something darkly hilarious. The balance of tone is very delicate but somehow Wheatley manages to find these moments of hilarious absurdity within an increasingly bleak narrative.
The titular "Kill List", that Jay and Gal set out to complete, should be kept a mystery but even after seeing it twice the exact nature of the list is unknown. This makes the film compelling repeat viewings, or possibly too frustrating to give a second chance, this is a divisive work. What makes Kill List so engaging and memorable, beyond the increasingly creepy story, is the way that story impacts the characters. Much like Down Terrace, the story is a means of pushing damaged people into new extremes of mental and physical danger.
Damaged from his service in Iraq and the enigmatic events in Kiev, Neil Maskell plays Jay like a gaping wound of a man. Unhealed and infected. We meet him on the brink of complete psychosis and it only takes us deeper; amplified by Maskell’s superb naturalistic performance, the places he takes the character are truly frightening.
Michael Smiley’s Gal is the perfect foil for Jay, he has an effortless amiability about the way he carries himself. Calm and charismatic, he uses his smooth persona to hide his own psychological scars from the war. He is, after all, a murderer for hire but his affection for friends and general good humour off-set his darker qualities. He is, at heart, a decent man and far more predictable and controlled than his partner, which makes him the warped moral center of this murderous journey.
Even during scenes of ‘normal’ family life or silent drives across the country, Kill List leaves you with a feeling of permanent unease. From the creepy whistling of the score, to the way Wheatley and Robin Hill (regular Wheatley collaborator) edit the sequences together are the cinematic equivalent of shell-shock or trying to remember the details of a nightmare. Their use of the jump cut is some of the best I have seen in a long time, using it to recreate a psychic state with the audience, not simply linking scenes together.
When the film finally starts taking some truly dark and disturbing turns, you will already be on edge but you will remain unprepared for what you see. Brutally violent, in an ugly and uncompromising way, Kill List lingers on moments that many weaker willed film-makers would turn away from.
More than simply a tale of shocking violence, Kill List builds towards something. It lures you in, taking you deeper down into the pit with these characters. It has been some time since a film sustained such an immense aura of dread and then succeeded in the pay off. The film-makers take us to these dark places with such skill, due to the nerve rattling editing, blood curdling sound design and an expert use of minimal light; it’s among the most intense and frightening horrors of the last decade.
I had some misgivings about the abruptness of the way the film ended but on reflection it only adds to the incredible psychological impact that Kill List has on a viewer; it has the effect of waking from a terrible dream, but too late for it to matter. Instead of sparing you from the worst, you’re left with images and questions rattling inside your head. Kill List is one of the few films this year that remains with me, months after originally seeing it on theatrical release, the DVD and Blu Ray release has only worsened that feeling.
This is a work of such unique artistic vision and technical control that it will tear its way into your subconscious and refuse to let go. This isn’t a simple movie or a piece of escapism, but an experience, and one you cannot escape by simply walking out of the cinema or turning off your TV. It will sit with you through your days and follow you into your nightmares. Kill List is the real deal.
Kill List is released on DVD and Blu Ray on December 26th.