[Note: this review contains spoilers.]
If Ben Wheatley’s genre-skewering debut Down Terrace showed promise, then his 2011 follow-up Kill List confirmed the writer-director to be one of the more twisted, fascinating voices in modern British cinema. It starts off straightforwardly enough, as a small-scale house-based drama in which ex-soldier Jay (Neil Maskell) struggles to make ends meet, the financial pressures testing a combustible relationship with Swedish wife Shel (played by MyAnna Buring). Jay, it transpires, has been recuperating at home following an unspecified incident in Kiev the year before, and has not found gainful employment since, but gradually we learn why his line of work involves long periods of downtime: his post-army career revolves around the carrying out of hits along with partner Gal (Wheatley regular Michael Smiley) – also a Kiev survivor – for shadowy be-suited men. When Gal arrives to tell Jay they’re needed for another job, Jay is initially reticent, before he decides he needs the money and agrees to take the work on. Their targets? A list of three men, seemingly unconnected; Shel, somewhat surprisingly, is in on it, and Skypes Gal while he’s on the road to ask – rather matter-of-factly – how he’s getting on.
Throughout the first act there are unusual sights and occurrences that suggest the rest of Kill List will be anything but a straightforward crime thriller: in the middle of a dinner party Gal’s new girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer) carves a symbol on the back of Jay and Shel’s bathroom mirror (the same occultish symbol Wheatley uses to open the film); a rabbit turns up in the couple’s garden with its entrails hanging out; and the man Gal and Jay are carrying out the hits for unexpectedly slashes Jay’s hand with a knife, in order to sign their contract in blood. What does all of this mean?
Gradually, having created a decidedly off-kilter, unsettling tone, Wheatley shows that his propensity for shocking the audience isn’t simply limited to sudden and extremely brutal acts of violence (though there are indeed plenty of these, too). The director lurches into something utterly nightmarish, creating an intensely creepy horror that nods most obviously to The Wicker Man, as well as the late-60s early-70s Tigon productions that specialised in satanic subject matter. Kill List climaxes with one of those ambiguous endings that invites you to muse upon what you have just witnessed, while simultaneously forcing you to recoil from the grisliness of its violence. It’s quite a ride, and if you’ve seen the film it’s worth reading this article and the comments underneath, which smartly dissect the film’s Arthurian references as well as its litany of potent, echoing images and lines of dialogue. And there are so many of these: those who have seen the film know exactly what the play swordfight in the back garden prefigures, or the relevance of the confrontation in the hotel restaurant, while a re-watch will surely have you smirking at Fiona’s line about working in ‘human resources’, delivered just after Jay lies and tells her he’s a salesman.
It hangs together thanks to some believable, naturalistic performances from the main cast members, as well as an excellent script – co-written by Wheately with Amy Jump, his wife and regular writing partner – that alleviates the creepiness with its well-worn partners-in-crime banter: Gal’s the offensive livewire who freely reveals all about his girlfriend’s bedroom habits, while Jay’s the disapproving foil (I wouldn’t go so far as call him the ‘calm one’, given his disturbing propensity for violence). I must admit to being impressed with Wheatley’s evident skill in moving from social-realist drama – think the grittier end of Mike Leigh or Ken Loach – to the kind of disturbing psychological retro horror recently practiced by the likes of Peter Strickland or Carol Morley, and the way in which he even manages to work in knockabout buddy comedy. I’d stop short of calling Kill List an instant cult classic because hey, I really have no idea how it will be viewed in decades to come, or whether it will be remembered, but I certainly feel like it ought to resonate with a certain type of film fan for many years to come. It’s one of the better folk horrors that I’ve seen.
Directed by: Ben Wheatley.
Written by: Ben Wheatley, Amy Jump.
Starring: Neil Maskell, Michael Smiley, MyAnna Buring, Emma Fryer.
Cinematography: Laurie Rose.
Editing: Amy Jump, Robin Hill, Ben Wheatley.
Music: Jim Williams.
Running Time: 91 minutes.