The new year is only nine days old, yet English writer-director Ben Wheatley has already given us a reason to start drafting up our “Best Movies Of 2012” list. Released overseas last year, Wheatley’s sophomore film, Kill List, is just receiving its stateside unveiling at the top of ’12, having debuted on IFC Midnight’s Video On Demand platform last week, before opening in limited theatrical release on February 9. Trust us, you shouldn’t wait another five weeks—consult the nearest VOD-compatible machine right away.
Equal parts hitman film, domestic drama, and batshit crazy horror, Kill List follows Jay (Neil Maskell), an out-of-work mercenary who, with old friend Gal (Michael Smiley), plans to murder three random folks targeted by their new employer, a wealthy and wholly suspicious elder gentleman (Struan Rodger). Complicating matters is Jay’s wife (MyAnna Buring), who’s constantly in his ear about his inefficiences as a provider for herself and their young son. Not to mention, their employer has a much more insidious, primal, and horrific agenda than simply offing people. Put it this way: A recent tutorial of ours would’ve come in handy for Jay and his buddy Gal.
To say any more at this point would be spoiler-ific; interestingly enough, however, Mr. Wheatley himself isn’t as worried about ruining Kill List’s specific beats. The highly talented filmmaker—whose previous effort, the lo-fi, gritty, and darkly funny organized crime study Down Terrace (2009), is also worthy of attention—is confident that audiences are intelligent enough to appreciate the film’s sneaky devastation and stomach-turning horror, even if they’ve approach the opening title sequence with detailed knowledge.
Horror fans, take note: Kill List is on its way to achieving the same level of you-have-to-see-it buzz previously afforded to imports such as Inside, [REC], and Martyrs. In this candid, lively chat with Complex, Wheatley discusses his approach to ambiguous storytelling, how Kill List’s scariest elements come from his own childhood nightmares, what negative lessons he learned from watching Lost, and his inspiration for Kill List’s immediate addition to our recent Most Vicious Beatings In Movies countdown.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
I have to start off with an admission: I’ve seen Kill List three times now, and after each viewing I walked out with more questions, ideas, and visceral reactions—all positive, mind you. Needless to say, it’s had quite an impact.
Wow, so you’ve seen it three times? [Laughs.] Something like that is good, though, isn’t it? It’s interesting that people would be patient enough to go back and watch something again and again. I really appreciate that. The amount of time that people are taking in over-analyzing it, even the people who aren’t really getting it… It’s like taking medicine—people are really forcing themselves to understand it, and I think that’s really good.
It’s much better than just that knee-jerk, “That didn’t make any sense—aaahhh!” reaction. [Laughs.] Or, “Why have they done this?” That kind of reaction that you get from Twitter, but that whole reaction is quite interesting, as well. You’ll often see that people who immediately react with anger and confusion will come back a day or two later and go, “You know, I actually really enjoyed it.” It’s not something that can be consumed in the traditional, straight way, or understood and forgotten about by the time you’ve left the cinema.
As a moviegoer, are those the kinds of films that you gravitate toward—ones that you need to see multiple times in order to truly understand them? In terms of its ambiguities and bewilderment, Kill List gave me a David Lynch vibe in some ways, and his movies are all about requiring multiple viewings.
Yeah, I love that approach to filmmaking. I love all sorts of cinema, though—I’m as happy going to see a blockbuster as I am a Tarkovsky film, but I think that the idea that things will win or fail depending on how immediately understandable they are is a mistake. It’s that kind of idea of pictorial, incredibly straight art, isn’t it? If you judge everything by how photographically real it looks, then you’re missing out on a lot of what art is about and what communication is. There are ambiguities in life, and that should be reflected in art, cinema, and storytelling, I think.
As a screenwriter, is it difficult to write a script that’s as ambiguous and concealed as Kill List is? Is there a conscious effort to not spell anything out too much, or does it just come out naturally once you have a handle on the material and the story you’re trying to tell?
No, actually. What we did for this one, we wrote a much fuller script. So you’ve got a lot more things in the original script where people absolutely hammer explanations over your head, where they go, “I am this,” and “I’ve done this,” and “I’m going to do that,” and you shoot those scenes, but sometimes you lose them in rehearsals. You weed them out in the edit, though, but you never lose them entirely, just in case the thing doesn’t make any sense once you’ve put a full film together.
That’s the worry—you don’t want to make something that doesn’t hold up at all. You want to make it kind of skeletal enough that people will understand it. You’re having a conversation with the screen when you’re watching a movie, don’t you? You talk to it, and you say, “What are you doing? Where are you going? How is that going to work?” And most times you totally understand the movie; even with the most tenuous of clues, you can piece it together and understand where it’s going. I think audiences can be incredibly sophisticated like that.
You really have to be careful with the clues you lay into the film—if they’re too heavy-handed, or you’ve pandered to a slightly stupider audience, then you’ve spoiled it for the people who are even slightly smart. That’s the worry. Also, a lot of people enjoy that teasing out of information and how that makes them think about it even harder. Otherwise, you might as well just have a banner up at the beginning of the movie that flat-out says what’s gonna happen and where it’s gonna go; then, everyone can relax because they know they’re not gonna have any problems understanding it.
As much as I agree with everything you’ve just said, there’s still a small part of me that would love to read that original, all-spelled-out script.
[Laughs.] The thing is, though, that it doesn’t matter. It depends on how much weight you put on narrative, or how much weight you put on the experiences. Finding out exactly what happens isn’t as interesting as all of the theories that are bouncing around in your head. Your fears are your own fears, and if I tell you mine specifically, and say, “This is the most terrifying thing that could happen to me,” you might look at it and go, “Well, that’s ridiculous—I’m not frightened of these things at all.”
Suggesting these fears and mixing in your own fears make the experience much more potent. It’s a thing I’ve found, narrative-wise, from American long-form television, like Lost or Battlestar Galactica. They’re brilliant, and they’re so frustrating yet riveting when they’re asking questions but so tedious when they’re telling you the answers to those questions, and they never really wrap them up right, do they? Your reaction ends up being one of, “Oh, so that’s what it all means? I went through all of that for that?”