See nothing, read nothing, know nothing, those are the truths we’ve been fed by the critical press ahead of Kill List, the second film by Ben Wheatley, director of Down Terrace. Now, I don’t want to front load this review too much, but I’m calling shenanigans here. Approach this as you would any other film because the reason for all the secrecy happens in the last 10 minutes.
Kill List is about ex-soldier Jay (Neil Maskell) who is struggling with unemployment to support his wife, Shel (MyAnna Buring) and son. This puts a great strain on Jay and Shels marriage with some violent arguments. That is about to end as his lifelong friend Gal (Michael Smiley) visits with a new girlfriend on his arm one night. One of the many highlights of this stormy night was Gal persuading Jay to go back into the Hitman game after a botched job in Kiev. It’s far from a typical Hitman film as events play out like a Mike Leigh and Takashi Miike collaboration, with social realism playing an equal role to hyper violence.
The opening 40 minutes give the characters depth allowing you to become emotionally engaged. As per course for a film which courts a comparison to social realism it’s during the opening half of the film where it presents a very bleak take on life with money and conflicting personalities causing relentless arguments. Its riveting stuff to see a film do characterisation properly, whether a film is a horror or a comedy it’s rare for such time and affection to be spent on crafting a context for a film to exist within.
Staying with the social realism, it’s common for films within that genre to be strongly linked to documentaries due to the steady hand camera work giving proceedings a brush with reality. It plays into the inherent sense of voyeurism of the form at its most basic level. Added on top of the camera work we have a very erratic editing style. The editing might be over the top, even distracting for some, personally, I found there to be meaning in the editing showing a directorial talent much stronger than that of someone working on their second feature. This complimented the realistic timbre in a way that felt like it had been tampered with. That somebody found some truth or reality in the film and choose to remove it, adding to the mystery.
Something else that would be an afterthought to the viewing experience is the soundtrack. There is only one word that can be used to describe the audio, intense. A soundtrack that is this emotionally intense could be too much for some, hence review quotes like “the scariest Hitman movie I’ve ever seen” seeing light of day. Me, I thought the soundtrack was a master class in misdirection. All of the scariest films you have ever seen, the one defining feature is a soundtrack which heightens the horror. I might not have found the film scary but to have a soundtrack which primes you for that terrifying moment only for it never come, had me on the edge of my seat. In hindsight, you might call that anti-climactic, while watching the film however it made for an uncomfortable experience, in a good way.
The intensity reaches its heady peak in the scenes where Gal & Jay are fulfilling their contractual obligations. It would be folly of me to say that this year hasn’t had some excessively violent films with Hobo with a Shotgun, Super and I Saw the Devil, even so, none of them compare to Kill List. Sure those films might be bloodier but the realism which director Wheatley has placed value in makes the violence much more hideous. In those other films, the people being murdered are disposable, faceless avatars, here they are real people having horrible things done to them. To say that this should never be seen by anyone even remotely squeamish is something that cannot be stressed enough.
I have covered all the bases so it’s about time that I talk about that which has been shrouded in mystery. Thanks to the promotional campaign, it really doesn’t take much guess-work to figure out that this is a horror. Kill List is brilliantly acted with bold practical effects far better than you get with such a low budgeted feature and the soundtrack is near perfection, then the film turns sour.
For 80 of the 96 minutes Kill List had me fixated with admiration. I was amazed by a film that was by turns moving, dramatic and funny whilst always remarkably intense.
Then the end game came leaving an absolute mess in its wake and a massive question mark over all the critical acclaim. Not just because it switched genres, it had already done that earlier when it shifted from social realism, but because of how badly it was done. The craft went walkabout only to be replaced with an ambiguity that left too many questions unanswered. Not little questions either, big ones like what happened in Kiev and why Jay’s victims thanked him as they were killed. Such holes are what you expect from a student film maker showing how deep they are by transparently borrowing from their favourite films without considering the implications. You expect more from a film which has courted acclaim like Kill List has.