Director Ben Wheatley’s navigation of different genres and making them work together is quite masterful in this new British horror film. Kill List’s opening quarter could be a social realist picture, what with all the shouting and stony silences between a husband and wife. The domestic set up is a brilliant way to blindside the audience into what is actually coming.
Kill List is a chameleon and changes from relationship drama to gangster movie to nightmare horror. There’s a pretty good clue very early on as to where this film might lead when a dinner table guest tells her hosts she's in the ‘human resources’ business. In hindsight, it's a macabre joke, but also relates to Jay’s (Neil Maskell) line of work too. He’s a hitman.
A seemingly routine job to rub out a select, unfortunate bunch gets stranger and stranger. Jay and Gal (his partner in crime) are assigned a series of targets. First they kill a priest, then a librarian, and finally are told to murder a politician. They don’t question a thing until they find and watch something on a laptop. We’re never sure what it is they see, but could be a snuff movie. Jay starts to behave more and more violent and unprofessional. Clean kills become messy affairs.
Wheatley’s film also possesses a fine ear for dialogue. Kill List might be a horror flick but it’s got some great comedic lines. The cast, too, are credited with ‘additional dialogue’. “Right, let’s go and kill this MP,” Gal says at one point, as if going to fix a dodgy satellite dish or mow the lawn. The attitude to their line of work is often very funny.
The sense of daring with the material is remarkable. Whilst rooted in genre – different genres, at that – the way it changes course is surprising and scary. Kill List could go anywhere. It’s violent too. Not in an outlandish kind of way either. More like a Scorsese flick.
The atmosphere moves from handheld immediacy to stoned weirdness with a creeping sense of the bizarre building up. The final scene ensures a spooky pay off but a level of ambiguity hangs regarding these last moments, giving the viewer plenty to ponder long afterwards.
Neil Maskell puts in a very sure performance as Jay. He’s usually cast as a wideboy gangster type in low budget Brit flicks. The character may be a bit of a weirdo and not a very nice man, but his haunted, confused state helps us understand his situation. There's something incredibly ordinary about him (and even Maskell's performance) but at the same time this heightens the premise. It's like he's wandered into the wrong film entirely.
Wheatley delivers nail-biting tension as if an old pro. The woodland scene in the third act is terrifying. The two hitmen are sleeping during a stake out of an MP’s country gaff when they’re woken by chanting. Slowly, torchlight snakes through the trees and we see hooded figures in procession. Is it a dream or really happening? The mystery pagan ritual recalls The Wicker Man but it then delivers an action scene with guns blazing as faceless, hooded freaks attack the pair like it's a Wild West shoot out between cowboys and Indians.
The use of chapter headings for each ‘kill’ lends the movie a deepening, episodic quality. We never really understand the crimes of the targets but we can guess. A priest, some dodgy Internet pornographers and a politician all seem rather timely targets in this day and age. Jay is doing his job but something else is happening to him. Does his misguided sense of justice and ease with murder make him an ideal candidate to enter the service of the Devil? Wheatley doesn’t spell it out at all making this fantastic British cinema.
Kill List is showing in UK cinemas now