Director: Ben Wheatley
Stars: Neil Maskell, MyAnna Buring, Michael Smiley, Emma Fryer, Harry Simpson
Release date: February 3, 2012
Kill List isn't an easy film to write about. Its greatest strengths come from the element of surprise.
Directed by the supremely gifted British genre filmmaker Ben Wheatley, who also co-wrote the script with his wife, Amy Jump, Kill List is a disorienting free-fall into the darkest of nightmares, a downward spiral for lead character Jay (Neil Maskell), an ex soldier and retired hitman whose world is riddled with stress. His wife, Shel (MyAnna Buring), constantly nags him about their lack of income, the result of Jay's ongoing unemployment, and exacerbating matters is his good friend/old hired-gun colleague Gal (Michael Smiley), who's talked Jay into accepting new jobs from an enigmatic and wealthy man simply known as "The Client." Their marks include a priest and a child pornographer, both of whom let Jay and Gal kill them, but not before they calmly thank Jay for doing so. Something's off about these assignments. As his world gets darker by the minute, Jay loses his grip on right and wrong, and his wife and young son, Justin (Ben Crompton), are inadvertently becoming involved.
From that plot description, one wouldn't be incorrect in questioning Kill List's status as a horror movie. It's never the least bit pleasant, powered by an overarching sense of dread, but an existential drama about a hitman's moral compass doesn't, at first glance, seem to belong on the same list as films like The Strangers and The Cabin in the Woods. But trust—Kill List is horror of the highest order.
Kill List has a singular kind of post-viewing impact—once it's over, and Wheatley socks you in the gut with the film's sickening final images, you may find yourself unable to breathe for a second or three. After my first time seeing it, I didn't move. I just sat in the darkly lit theater, trying to process what I'd just witnessed and wondering if I hadn't just watched a movie but, rather, been slugged in the stomach and cranium for 95 minutes. And I couldn't wait to re-watch it as soon as possible.
Wheatley's film is impossible to comprehend after only one watch. It's borderline impenetrable. Wheatley and Jump constructed the film like a puzzle, with clues to its secrets intricately sprinkled throughout and key pieces of background information left to suggestion. Jay's history isn't paraded around with overdone exposition—he's as much of a question mark as he is an antihero. Similarly, the magnitude of his current predicament's horror is hinted at with seemingly out-of-nowhere cutaways, like when a houseguest randomly carves a bizarre symbol behind Jay's bathroom mirror—these images linger in your mind, even if they're never mentioned by any of the characters after the fact.
Kill List's true horror is revealed in a tremendously staged nighttime, woodland sequence that plays like a fever dream. You're engrossed in the film's hallucinogenic aura. The sound design—all eerie whistling, tribal drums, and otherworldly strings—burrow into your eardrums and won't let up.
During my January 2012 interview with Wheatley, he talked about the benefits of audiences giving Kill List multiple looks, and how the film was engineered for that type of consumption. "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."
That's why Kill List is its own unique beast on this list. David Lynch enthusiasts argue about whether his movies, like Lost Highway (1997), Mulholland Drive (2001), and Inland Empire (2006), can be accurately classified as horror or not, but with Kill List, Ben Wheatley successfully tapped into the Lynchian storytelling formula (intentional murkiness + unsettling imagery = What the hell did I just watch?) in a film that's undeniably horror. Read the signs. —Matt Barone