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Kill List (2011)

Cover art:

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Kill ListStarring Neil Maskell, MyAnna Buring, Michael Smiley, Emma Fryer

Directed by Ben Wheatley


Down Terrace director Ben Wheatley’s descent into terror, Kill List, is the type of film that must be gone into with as little knowledge of the proceedings as possible. With its horror angle hinging on an ultimate twist ending a la The Wicker Man, it also manages to succeed as a competent drama and spontaneously shocking thriller.

Lead Neil Maskell is family man Jay, struggling through a rapidly fracturing marriage to his wife, Shel (Buring), while also trying to provide a decent upbringing for their young son. With Jay having been out of work for a number of months since returning, emotionally scarred and physically affected, from the military, the family is flat broke so he takes up a job brought to him by best friend Gal (Smiley). Seems that these two also have a history working on the side as contract killers, and to save his home life, Jay has no option but to accept Gal’s latest lucrative offer.

Kill list in hand, the pair set about offing their prey – but things are nowhere near as they seem. Uncovering a child porn ring in the process of taking out one of the designated targets threatens to throw Jay off the rails as he swears, and enacts, brutal retribution on those involved. Strangely, those lined up for execution have only two words to say to Jay once staring down the barrel of his gun: “Thank you.”

Approaching the final target (a well known Member of Parliament), Jay discovers that his actions have been as a pawn within a much more insidious scheme, and he is unwittingly drawn into a maniacal circle of ritualistic murder and mayhem that may just involve people closer to him than he ever would have imagined.

Marvelously acted across the board (especially Smiley as Gal), Kill List is an impeccably crafted thriller that takes a sharp, and startling, detour into horror territory. Wheatley’s pacing is spot on, and he deftly shifts styles from early social realist drama to threatening mystery through to violent thriller and a final metamorphosis to survival horror. His direction is tight and confident, generating some very proficient scares during the claustrophobic shriek-fest of a climax. Kill List also contains some of the most vicious and brutal violence seen in a film this year. When Jay begins meting justice out to those involved in the uncovered child abuse, the results can be very nasty. One particular scene involving an incapacitated man and a claw hammer will stay with you for a very long time.

Where Kill List fails, however, is the script. While the old friend relationship dynamic between Jay and Gal is instantly believable and delivered with precision by the players, Jay’s tendency for violence and intimidating behaviour seems a little too selective. He’s drawn as an extremely volatile individual, handled by Gal like one might handle a glass of nitroglycerin, and yet we’re supposed to believe that in the midst of his many, many destructive rows at home (and undoubtedly further afield), he has never lashed out to strike the worst choice of person, including his wife and child.

Similarly, while the film is steeped in mystery and thus highly engaging, it’s catastrophically disappointing that literally zero answers as to the machinations of Jay’s forced journey are given. Of course, as intelligent audiences we don’t need every single thing explained for us, but when characters are secretly scrawling arcane symbols in hidden corners of Jay’s home and the entire affair reeks of some clandestine predetermination, it’s criminal not to offer even surreptitious clues as to the point behind it all.

Still, Kill List remains a strikingly violent success. As thrilling as it is horrifying, and absorbing as it can be frustrating, it’s dramatic, weighty and gripping stuff. Keep your expectations in check, don’t expect too many answers and you should find Jay’s journey to hell a suitably impressive one.

3 1/2 out of 5

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Gareth Jones

Horror is my jam, yo.