Film Review: Kill List
With Down Terrace, a tale of small time gangsters set under one roof, Ben Wheatley created one of the funniest and darkest British debuts in years. In Kill List, his second feature in two years, Wheatley retains the doom and gloom but gone is most of the humour; except for a few good lines and an encounter with Christians, Kill List is very bleak. Very bleak. The film follows former soldier Jay (Neil Maskell), who is in serious money troubles until old friend Gal (Michael Smiley) offers him work as a hitman. After a strange and ominous first meeting with their new boss, the men are given a list of their targets. From there, the film spirals down and down, until by the end, you’ve been down the rabbit hole and out the other side.
There are numerous reasons Kill List is a cut above the average British horror film, but the most prominent is the sheer quality of acting on display. Leading role Maskell takes a potentially unlikeable character, a man who spends half the film shouting and wrestling with either Gal or his own conscience, and makes him into a human who we feel for as he suffers in numerous ways. Also of high quality is MyAnna Buring as Gal’s put upon wife Shel, a former soldier herself whose high standard of living begins to get compromised as Jay stops being able to work. Though her character struggles at times to be more than simply spoilt, Buring is likeable and holds her own against the forceful performance by Maskell.
However, Michael Smiley gives a blinding performance as Gal, a man more laid back than Jay but still serious when he needs to be, and someone who recognises their best friend is a traumatised wreck, but does his uttermost to keep a handle on it. It’s a mature and confident performance from Smiley, and completely deserving of the British Independent Film Award he won.
As Kill List revolves around, obviously, a list of names, the film is home to various set pieces, not to say that it lacks in story. It is fair to say, however, that the set pieces highlight the film. The first victim, The Librarian, offers us a strange and cryptic introduction to the main theme of the film; all the victims seem to know Jay and thank him for their execution. Why? By the end of the film, we still only have the vague sense of knowledge. The second victim, The Librarian, offers us one of the most infamous and grisliest scenes in the last ten years of filmmaking. Even the strongest minded will be utterly shocked. The next victim, The MP, leads to the scariest scene of the film; if you’re not biting your nails during the ‘tunnel’ sequence, you’re doing a better job than most.
Kill List is certainly a mystery film; numerous questions are raised throughout the film, such as: What does Jay find in the Librarian’s lockup? Why does everybody seem to ignore the mark Jay is developing on his arm? Why is the Waving Woman there? Is that a smile at the end? And, most importantly, what happened in Kiev? Some of these questions are resolved, some will take a few viewings to work out, and some will rack your brain for the rest of time.
It would be wrong to call Kill List a perfect film, mostly due to that ending. While it does become clearer on repeat viewings, it still feels like too harsh a turning point, and still feels somewhat ill fitting. Admiration is required for Wheatley, who really does go all out and produces something original and certainly different; it just doesn’t build up as well it could, and is probably too cryptic for its own good. However, the ending is still haunting, and if it doesn’t make sense, earns credit for its sheer audacity. No matter what can be said about Kill List, once you reach the end of the film, it will leave you talking and working out for days.
By Harry Ford