(95 minutes, Not Rated)
Kill List is nearly impossible to categorize in a specific genre; in fact, it actually has elements of several genres mashed together. I would consider it a dark psychological thriller mixed with black comedy and horror elements. Obviously, that description is all over the place, but that is what makes Kill List so fascinating. The movie begins as the average crime drama: a hitman named Jay (Neil Maskell) is given a hit list. But as he starts the job he notices peculiarities: for instance, his victims thank him before being murdered and his partner remains uneasy about the whole process. Slowly the film divulges down the rabbit hole, resulting in one of the craziest films in the last decade. But all of this works because it consistently subverts the viewers’ expectations.
The story defied my expectation because I expected ‘The Wicker Man’ twist to happen sooner. Instead, the mixture of tense atmosphere and a ‘goose bump inducing’ score result in the viewer constantly sitting at the ‘edge of his or her seat.’ And I do respect the fact that the Kill List is a slow burn movie; though there is a consistent sense of uneasiness, the actual horror does not overwhelm the experience until the last twenty minutes. While I respect the audacity of this choice, it did leave me annoyed and puzzled by the final twist; personally, I loved the build up but thought the third act was rushed. I like the idea that the audience does not know the intentions of the cult, but the limited amount of time between the reveal and the end makes it feel like this finale was shoehorned into the product.
But again, this picture subverts common conventions; and for the most part, it is meant to be divisive. There is a reason why people are talking about Ben Wheatley; his off-kilter films serve as a counterpoint to mainstream expectations. Kill List starts off as a normal family drama, with Jay and his wife Shel (MyAnna Buring) fighting over financial woes. It is not until well over ten minutes that the audience even finds out that Jay is a contract killer and that Shel openly knows her husband’s job: which successfully turns the clichéd wife character in a crime drama ‘on its head.’
Yet, there is the aforementioned apprehension that looms from the very beginning; the music does a good job to establish the tone even though the visuals do not properly match that tension. Furthermore, I love the nonchalant approach to the hitman’s lifestyle; the viewer knows that Jay and his partner Gal (Michael Smiley) are going to kill people, but the audience share the desensitized approach of the main characters. And for the first 70 minutes, the subtlety behind the storytelling leaves a lot of what transpires to the watcher’s imagination.
However, once the horror element kicks in, the picture ‘grabs the viewer by the throat’ and refuses to let go. The claustrophobic tunnel sequence is scary alone by how contained it feels; now, add the ‘Wicker Man-like’ cult chasing the anti-heroes in a seemingly endless contained space and the consequence is one of the most frightening scenes in recent memory. Ben Wheatley knows how to raise the tension in non-tense settings, so you can only imagine the anxiety caused by his direction in the tunnel.
Yet, it steamrolls to a conclusion that will have people forever talking: which means the Kill List needs to be seen more than once. Yes, the two leads, Jay and his wife Shel, are unlikable characters, but the mysterious nature of the cult mixed with the viewer’s imagination will result in hundreds of interpretations. And though there is only one character that is somewhat likeable (Gal), the need to know the unknown will cause the viewer to return to this intense, gory, and hard-to-watch film. For instance, I felt a sense of dread after finishing it, but the inability to get the ending or the entire product out of my head will result in additional viewings; however, I have a suspicion that another play through will lead to more questions than answers.
Again, it is nearly impossible to label or talk about this film without giving too much away; I limited what I could say and still feel that this review is ‘full of spoilers.’ With that said, there was a question that was constant in my mind while watching this: is this weird for the sake of being weird or an effective psychological horror/thriller? And I have to admit that it is a bit of both and that is why Ben Wheatley is a master at his craft. Though it feels like Kill List could be all over the place, the viewer knows that the director has a clear vision. He effectively created an ‘anxiety filled’ environment that leaves enough to the viewer’s imagination; psychologically, this is a million times scarier than clichéd ‘jump scares’ or distorted imagery.
The fear of the unknown created by Wheatley has forever seeped into my subconscious and results in an unforgettable experience. However, it is hard to recommend this picture to the average viewer; first and foremost, you need to be in the right state of mind to watch this horribly grotesque picture. Kill List is not something you can watch on a normal Saturday; but for those who like experimental movies that throw clichéd conventions on their head, this is a must see. But those expecting a straight horror film should look elsewhere.
Ben Wheatley is a name that just appeared on my radar and like Nicholas Winding Refn he defies studio expectations to deliver his vision; and I have to start paying attention to his releases because his films offer an experience unlike anything in mainstream society. Though the Kill List is not perfect, it offers a shot of adrenaline in a somewhat dying genre.