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Kill List (2012)

March 16, 2012


written by: Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump

produced by: Claire Jones and Andy Starke

directed by:  Ben Wheatley

rating: unrated

runtime: 91 min. 

U.S. release date: 01-03-12 (VOD, iTunes, ZUNE, and amazon), 02-03-12 (limited) & 03-16-12 (Music Box Theatre, Chicago, IL)

Positive word-of-mouth can be a tricky thing, especially when it comes to film recommendations. It all depends on who it’s coming from and what kind of accolades are bestowed, but ultimately it’s up to you to decide whether or not you’re going to give the film you’re time. After all, you know what interests you and what you feel you have a threshold for.  I had to weigh all this recently when a writer I admire spoke highly of writer-director Ben Wheatley’s latest “Kill List”, a film that’s being categorized as British horror. Such a general description doesn’t fully represent what this volatile and violent thriller is about. It’s one of those films that’ll find viewers wondering what exactly it is they just saw, sending them searching for others who’ve seen it in order to both decompress and unload from their viewing experience. Baffling and infuriating, “Kill List” lives up to the hype, in that it is both successfully provocative and frustrating.

The film opens in the home of an argumentative couple, the kind of brutal and uncomfortable examination of marital discontent one might find in a John Cassavetes or Ken Loach film. Wheatley wastes no time with introductions or explanations (settle in, this is how the film rolls), as we meet Jay (Neil Maskell), a frustrated and hot-tempered British ex-military guy who’s been out of work going on 8 months, and Shel (MyAnna Buring), his aggravated and exasperated Ukranian wife who cannot take the continuous pressure of rising bills anymore. When they cool down from screaming and hitting each other, we do see them express love for each other and their frightened 7 year-old son, Sam (Harry Simpson), but it’s far from an ideal environment.



Perhaps in a subconscious attempt at normalcy, the two invite their good friend Gal (Michael Smiley) over for dinner – even though Shel berates Jay for purchasing a copious amount of wine for the evening, instead of remembering toilet paper. Gal shows up with his new girlfriend, Fiona (Emma Fryer), but the dinner pleasantries are short-lived as the resentful Jay erupts, fed up with his wife’s bitter verbal jabs in front of their guests. It comes as no surprise then when Jay agrees to join Gal (who served as a soldier with Jay) on a contract gig, joining his friend as a hitman, focusing on diverse-yet-specific targets from a mysterious client. It may seem slightly odd that Shel is unfazed at the idea of her husband taking such a job. Maybe she’s content that he’s getting out of the house, or finally making some money, or maybe her own military past factors in.

While Wheatley establishes the fractured family dynamic in his first act, he also develops an increasing unsettling aura which accentuated by unidentifiable sounds and a haunting score by  Jim Williams (who also worked on Wheatley’s 2009 debut “Down Terrace”). The character-driven script offers opportunities to discuss topics such as responsibility and religion, but things get weird once Jay and Gal embark on their job. To go into more details would be a disservice the disturbing and absorbing story co-writers Wheatley and Amy Jump have created here. It doesn’t ruin anything to share that their targets: a priest, a collector of despicable videos, and a member of Parliament, all calmly say, “thank you” before they’re killed. It’s an odd resignation, but signing a contract in blood should’ve told these two something was a little off.



There must have been some event in the past that has led to Jay becoming the short-fused powder keg that he is. A previous situation in Kiev involving both men is eluded to, which may be the cause of the post-traumatic stress disorder that Jay is obviously experiencing but isn’t admitting to. Maskell plays Jay with a good deal of repressed emotion, probably something that has developed over the years. One gets the impression that he and Shel weren’t always at each other’s throats, but years of unspoken feelings and undealt with traumas have led their miserable state. As Gal, Smiley plays the guy who is a friend to both, but has his hands full working with Jay, who is quickly losing control, dispensing their targets in a savagely shocking manner. Despite their line of work, Gal is still trying to maintain a moral code, but as they dig deeper into this bizarre underworld, he’s forced to go along with Jay’s rash actions.

On a side note, as I watched these two actors work together, I couldn’t help but to think of how Ricky Gervais and Peter Stormare could easily play these roles. Not that Maskell and Smiley weren’t fitting, but I must admit – seeing Gervais as a disturbed (and disturbing) assassin would be pretty intriguing.

The blatant obscurity present in “Kill List” may be a turn off for some, but I’ll gladly take it over needless exposition. Still, I can understand how some viewers would want some explanation. A little more definition and detail might’ve helped, but Wheatley isn’t focusing on coherence here (especially with his actors mumbling their lines), caring more about immersing his audience into the unknown, putting them on an uncertain path that leads to a shocking ending.

It’s fruitless to try to scrutinize over the symbols and strange behavior in “Kill List”, since I doubt Wheatley has intentionally hidden any answers throughout the film. Regardless, it’s a film that warrants all the buzz it’s received on the festival circuit since premiered at last year’s SXSW in Austin, Texas. With a filmmaker who has such a strong presence, I don’t mind being left in the dark. Instead of looking at “Kill List” as a taxing sit, it’s best to just appreciate all that it is left for interpretation and open to discussion.






5 Comments leave one →
  1. francesca permalink
    March 19, 2012 11:31 am

    Sounds fabulous, I must see it! I just checked it out on IMDB and was surprised at Ben WHeatley’s credentials, he’s mostly been involved with comedy until now. I was also pleased to see lots of people agree with your review and didn’t mind being left in the dark. Margin Call also had that element of not explaining, so that the viewer had no choice but to think about the importance of what is actually up there on the screen. I like this and it’s also why I love David Lynch. Interesting to see a couple of films moving in this direction, it’s happened often in literature – even Charles Dickens left us hanging with Great Expectations – good to see the language of film also adapting and changing.

  2. March 31, 2012 1:05 pm

    Great review, I have to see this now.


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