‘Kill List’ is Disturbing Folk Horror Perfection [Watch]
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Today’s selection was lauded by critics upon release and even has a cult fanbase. But the picture still remains somewhat under-seen by the masses. I’m talking about Ben Wheatley’s cinematic masterpiece Kill List. In short, Kill List is a slow-burn affair with incredible characters, a wicked twist that will leave you speechless, and the distinction of having served as a loose inspiration for Ari Aster’s Hereditary.
Kill List follows hitmen Jay (Neil Maskell) and Gal (Michael Smiley). Jay is reeling from past trauma and has been out of work as a result. But a lack of cash flow sees the two agreeing to take on a new contract. They are given a list of targets to track down and eliminate. Along the way to their goal, the duo ultimately realizes they have gotten themselves into a messy ordeal that’s sure to change both of their lives forever.
As I mentioned earlier, Kill List doesn’t bring the horror at the onset. It’s a slow-burn affair but it’s one of the most effective uses of the slow-burn technique I’ve seen. Kill List justifies its leisurely approach by filling the calm before the epic storm with incredible characters. They aren’t always likable and it’s not always comfortable to exist in their presence. But they are always authentic and always believable.
The dynamic between Jay and his wife, Shel (MyAnna Buring), is among the most impressive aspects of a very impressive film. They believably come across as two people who probably loved each other very much at one point and still do, but their relationship has become strained as a result of things unsaid. We see moments where they connect easily and naturally that harken back to better times. But those are frequently overshadowed by their explosive arguments. Often, the pair struggle to exist on the same wavelength—they’re incapable of finding any common ground. Even the most seemingly innocuous remarks set off a chain reaction that ends in a full-fledged eruption.
You could cut the tension between Shel and Jay with a knife. But that dynamic serves to keep the viewer in a state of distress while other characters are introduced, established, and developed. The persistent sense of unease also serves to plant the seeds for what’s to come in the third act.
Jay is very convincing as a man with PTSD who is too proud to admit that he’s struggling. And that is a constant source of contention between him and Shel. They both realize he is in peril. But both appear afraid to have an honest conversation about it. Jay says that his back is the problem but it’s clear that his greatest struggles originate from within.
A scene that unfolds in a restaurant sees Jay getting angry at a nearby table for openly discussing feelings and emotions. He threatens to run across the dining room and kill them, which seems to be his go-to response when he’s emotionally uncomfortable. Ironically, if he were to adopt a similar level of openness to his deeply repressed feelings, he could be well on his way to mending much of what ails him.
The sequence where Jay goes ‘off list’ gives us further insight into his condition. His rampage seems to bring him a sort of tranquility as if he is temporarily keeping his uncomfortable feelings at bay by perpetrating acts of violence. He gets a catharsis from that. His quarrels with Gal also frequently turn physical and one gets the impression that’s part of a deep-seated defense mechanism to stave off emotional discomfort.
The film is also noteworthy for the various ways in which it influenced Hereditary. Without going into great detail and spoiling any surprises, both feature a shocking finale with thematic elements guaranteed to knock the wind out of the audience. Each has sinister ties to the occult. Both pictures are slow burns and start out as anything but horror. And each features subtext speaking to the harmful effects of unprocessed trauma.
Ari Aster definitely carves out his own path with Hereditary and the credit he’s received is well deserved. But it’s easy to see that Kill List served as an influence and I wish this picture were given more credit for that distinction. Even Aster has admitted that Wheatley’s film played a role in the conception process of Hereditary. So, it would be nice to see Kill List given wider acclaim as the trailblazing effort that it is.
Some will surely point out that Kill List draws influence from The Wicker Man. And that’s a valid point. But I could counter that Hereditary has more thematic elements in common with Kill List than The Wicker Man. I think of Kill List as being almost like the bridge between those two films.
I think if Kill List had been made just a few years later, it may have been picked up by a boutique distributor like A24 and found a wider audience. But alas, it was put out by IFC and didn’t make much of a splash.
At its core, Kill List is a harrowing affair that will stay with you long after the credits roll. The character work is exceptional. The performances are inspired. And the finale leaves me speechless every time I watch it.