True story: towards the end of 2011, I inexplicably began suffering from an absolutely horrendous bout of sleep-related anxiety. I’d go to bed at the same time I always had – a reasonable hour at that – and then, out of nowhere, began waking up earlier and earlier. 5am. 4am. 3.30am. Waking up, and being completely unable to get back to sleep. And the longer it went on, the worse it got; as soon as I’d wake, my brain would immediately tick over and think “Oh no”. So I’d lie there, in pitch darkness, with my mind going a mile a minute, and inexplicably going to the worst places imaginable. Because, for some reason that’s hard-wired into the human psyche, that’s what darkness does to you. It reaches into the scariest places of your mind, even when it’s the last thing you want it to do, and brings fear to the fore. Lying there during those nights, I was acutely reminded of the fact that darkness and terror, whether we admit it not, are inescapably linked. And I’m telling you this because, watching Kill List, there were two themes that pervaded the film. Darkness. And then, as the story unfolds, total, mind-fucking terror.
I’m going to have to be careful here, because part of the reason this film is so intriguing and horrifying is indebted to the viewer having no clue where and why and story goes where it does. So while trying to not do the standard, boring critical route of giving a basic description/opinion/conclusion, I’ll do my best. Jay (Neil Maskell), is a former military man, now married and raising a son, and seemingly doing little else. As is evident from the film’s opening scenes, his wife Shel (the wonderfully named MyAnna Buring, last notably seen in Neil Marshall’s excellent ‘The Descent’) is becoming increasingly infuriated with the inertia of his lifestyle and reluctance to be anything other than a husband and father, especially when it seems to be leading their family’s comfortable lifestyle on the road to much, much less. They have a large house, a family saloon car, a hot-tub; a life that would be enviable to most, which she obviously feels is being threatened by his inability to get off his rear-end and move on. It is at a dinner party with an ex-military compatriot, Gal (Michael Smiley – best known as ‘Oi Oi!’ loveable rogue Tyres in ‘Spaced’), who is accompanied by his mysterious date Fiona, that an opportunity for some serious money arises. A hitman job – five targets, all easy victims, and with a serious payload in the backend. Of course, Jay refuses – first and foremost as a father, and also as a man desperate to leave his gritty past behind him – but following a serious of escalating rows with his spouse over income, he reluctantly accepts. This is the Kill List. And I’ll say no more about what happens in the story, as everything that follows is what makes this movie truly special.
What struck me as remarkable first and foremost is that this entire opening plays out like any number of standard British kitchen-sink dramas you could care to recount. The performances are perfect, hyper-realistic to the point that the audience genuinely feels uncomfortable watching the arguments and fights because they ring so true. Have you ever watched a couple, who are friends of yours, bitterly quarrel? This film nails the tone and feel of that awkwardness to a tee. You understand Jay’s self-loathing at not being able to provide for his family. You empathise with his wife’s frustration about this, and her willingness to vent her anger at him. You understand Jay’s feelings that he’s gradually becoming a failure, and worthless. And that, ultimately, is why he accepts Gal’s offer for the hitman job. He wants nothing more than to be a husband and father, to leave whatever awfulness he caused in his past exactly there, and be able to afford to do it. That’s the draw of the Kill List, and ultimately why he says yes.
That’s all you’re getting from me. That’s your basic set-up and I’ll say no more, because if someone had told me anything that happened after that, I’d have to create a Kill List of my own, and the person who revealed any more would damn sure be the first person on it.
What I can do instead is talk about how masterful, mysterious, and fucking outright provocative this film is. You think M. Night. Shyamalan knows (or knew, at least) how to tell a twisty story? Well, he can get right the hell back to Film School 101, because guess what? The main character doesn’t suddenly become a werewolf, or an alien, or a ghost or some shit. I can’t remember a film I’ve seen in recent years that’s taken my expectations of where a story is going, and twisted a knife into my brain for making me think I was cock-sure enough to predict the outcome of the filmmaker’s story. It is, quite simply, a bravado exercise in a simple set-up, which is then absolutely crushed by building a story upon it like a cinematic giant Jenga – the audience absolutely dreads it will collapse at any moment. Dread is the key element here; between the utterly nerve-jangling score by Jim Williams, which is by turns subtly eerie and heart-hammeringly frightening, and the increasing “oh my god, what next?” turns the story takes, it genuinely leaves the viewer in a perpetual state of confusion and shock. And that’s not to say that it’s not also funny; the best-friend banter between Jay and Gal is at worst bad taste and at best hilarious, but always believable in the way friends interact with each other. But this only serves to make the viewer shift in their seats when you’re not only lost and scared in the story, but the protagonists are even more so. And a big contributing factor to the success of the film is writer/director Wheatley’s stylistic choices with the look and feel of it, as everything is practically drenched in the drab and the mundane. It’s what makes Jay and Gal so chilling; they seem like normal guys. They have friends over for dinner, they laugh and drink and joke, they love their kids. And then, at the drop of a hat, have absolutely no qualms executing someone or beating them to death. These people could be your neighbours, or your friends, and you’d have no idea what horrors they hide. It’s really quite frightening.
I hinted at the violence in the film there, and there’s not a huge amount of it, but when it happens, it will upset you. I’m no prude by any means, but when you’re watching a film alone – and there are at least four separate scenes that make you put your hands over your mouth and muffle ‘Jeefuff Chrifft’ – you know you’re watching something that will stay with you. There’s at least one moment that disturbed me as much as anything in Alexandre Aja’s ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ remake, which – while being one of the best ‘horrifying’ horrors I’ve ever seen, I’ll never watch again – and it truly scratches at the darkest corners of your brain.
I really, honestly can’t say anymore about this without giving away anything that made this resonate with me that way it did. I will say that the third act goes to the darkest place I’ve seen in a long time, and provoked more discussion from me than I’ve had in quite a while. And, when you’ve seen it – and I can’t strongly enough that you do – let’s discuss it, in the comments below or at twitter.com/that_skinny_guy. I love, love, love a movie that’s brave enough to leave its true meaning open to the interpretation of the viewer, and this does that in spades. It’s provocative. It’s thrilling. It’s gritty, terrifying, low-budget film-making, and it’s only Ben Wheatley’s second film.
God help us for what he’s got in store for his third.
This review was originally published on rustyshark.com