Directed by: Ben Wheatley.
Written by: Ben Wheatley & Amy Jump.
Starring: Neil Maskell (Jay), MyAnna Buring (Shel), Harry Simpson (Sam), Michael Smiley (Gal), Emma Fryer (Fiona), Struan Rodger (The Client).
Note: I have done my best to avoid spoilers in this review. However, I think the least amount of knowledge you have when walking into Kill List, the better, so you may want to avoid the review until after you’ve seen the film. It is a brilliant horror movie but it is also incredibly violent. You’ve been warned.
Ben Wheatley’s Kill List is one of the most disturbing horror films in recent memory. Wheatley doesn’t jump headlong into his horror story, but builds it from the ground up; moving through domestic drama and crime film before it even gets to the horror elements of the story. And yet despite the shifts in narrative, Wheatley keeps a remarkably similar tone throughout. We know something is wrong right from the beginning – that Wheatley has more on his mind than what first appears on screen. The horror elements infiltrate those early domestic scenes, much like the domestic ones infiltrate the shocking finale. This is one screwed up film – but a brilliant one.
The movie opens with Jay (Neil Maskell) in an argument with his wife Shel (MyAnna Buring). He hasn’t worked in months, apparently because of a bad back, and their savings have been depleted in that time. His friend Gal (Michael Smiley) shows up one night with his new girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer), and the two of them are treated to a domestic battle between the couple. She wants him to go back to work to support her and their son, he isn’t sure he can. But the money is gone, and besides Gal has a line on a job that they can do together. The pay is good. But what the hell is Fiona doing in that bathroom? To say more would be unfair, as the movie takes many unexpected turns along the way. Needless to say however, that Jay and Gal, two old army buddies with a dark past, do not run a dry wall business and violence has a way of coming home to roost.
Kill List is an odd film – especially for a horror film. Most horror films, even good ones, don’t spend much time on character development or even character motivation. It’s hard to develop characters when they spend most of the movie running from a psychopath. But Kill List is different because it takes it time. Those opening scenes of marital discord are as important as anything else in the movie. The interaction between Jay and his wife have the same power to shock you with their cruelty as anything else. By the time Jay and Gal hit the road, we know who these characters are, and that makes things all the more disturbing.
Performances in horror films are often underrated, and here, they are as important as anything else. Neil Maskell makes Jay into an angry, violent man, who rage simmers just beneath the surface, even in the most banal of situations. He will become increasingly unhinged as the movie goes along, but that grows from within – this is the person he always was, so even when he becomes violent, it seems natural. MyAnna Buring, as his wife, has a much more complex role than it appears on the surface. She knows precisely what it is her husband does – knows what he is going to do when he leaves with Gal, and knows the price it will cost him. She shoves him out the door anyway. Michael Smiley seems more at ease with himself as Gal – more able to separate what he does and who he is than Jay is. And Emma Fryer, who has but a few short scenes, is all disturbing sexual energy.
The violence when it comes in Kill List, and boy does it come, is strong, disturbing and bloody as hell. And yet, the violence is not prolonged. The movie doesn’t dwell on it, and while it is fast and furious, it is telegraphed beforehand. This doesn’t take the edge off of the violence in anyway, but somehow, makes it hit even harder. Whether it execution style killing, beating someone with a hammer (in what will become the movies most infamous scene), mowing down the faceless enemy with automatic rifles, or the disturbing conflict that ends the film, the violence is harsh – as well it should be.
Kill List, although it is a horror film, ultimately has more on its mind than killing people. It is about that line of killing that once crossed, for any reason, enacts the price on the person doing the killing. Could Jay do what he does had he not already killed in the army? And if you kill people while in the army, even if for a “just cause” whatever that may be, does it not make it easier to continue killing later? Perhaps the most shocking moment in the film comes right at the very end – after all the blood has been split, and the body count is finalized. Jay didn’t look too upset to me.