Kill List (2011)


Ritualistic hitman buddy picture

Ben Wheatley’s second feature is more droll, more violent, and stranger than his debut Down Terrace but the initial sly blend of domestic and mundane with criminal and brutal remains. Wheatley has an abiding interest in the banality of evil, behind which there is a natural logic. Like Coppola in his Godfather epic but in a wry, low key British manner, he’s simply building on the inevitable fact that crooks have families too and can be caring dads and vicious killers at the same time. Kill List moves toward more polish, a cleaner, brighter look, and bolder staging. As hinted in the title — with its domestic undertone of assassins carrying instructions like shoppers at a supermarket — this time a series of murders must occur on camera. As they proceed, the hitmen open a can of worms. But the talk remains paramount, its menace and drollery shared by a tradition of English crime films with Pinter’s dramas. Only now there are surges of string music to add tension, and some spectacular final scenes. No doubt Wheatley goes a bit overboard, in fact. As Roger Ebert remarks, he’s shown not only that he knows how to make a movie, but that he can make three movies at the same time. This is a domestic drama, a crime-caper story, and a horror film with occult Wicker Man overtones. But this director continues to work in his own special way, caviar to the general, perhaps, but catnip to the devotee, an actors’ filmmaker who, with his wife Amy Jump, writes good stuff, and can deliver the goods.

Jay (Neil Maskell) is an emotionally complicated former soldier who has what seems an ordinary, unglamorous life, with a little boy he’s attentive to and a Swedish-British wife called Shel (MyAnna Buring) who bitches at him for financial troubles. He hasn’t worked in a year, since something went wrong in Kiev. Then his salty Irish partner and army buddy Gal (Michael Smiley) shows up for dinner with a hitman job that will pay very good money. He brings with him a date, Fiona (Emma Fryer), whose speciality is sacking people from companies: “I assess the extraneous manpower and de-force accordingly.” A violent flareup between Jay and Shel occurs; but late that night they make up. Next day it turns out it’s Fiona who’s preemptively dumped Gal. What does it matter? Soon Gal and Jay are off researching and executing their. . . executions. The large intertitles announcing the victims’ occupations have been deemed obtrusive — a “most easily correctable misstep,” as Andrew Barker of Variety put it, that was never corrected. But the titles have a point: amid the chaos of violence they impose a tidy structure, or even the sense of a ritual or quest, which also becomes relevant, when the “list” leads to unearthing something more complicated.

Several times Wheatley is going to rub your noses in violence in ways that will challenge the horror nerd, but what’s happening is often not the pleasure so much as the incidental riffs, which reveal the English gift for vernacular dialogue and verbal assault. It’s still worth always keeping in mind that in other media Wheatley has specialised in comedy. I wish he had kept it more in mind himself. I’d have liked more moments like the one when Jay silences Born Again types singing “Onward Christian Soldiers” at a restaurant, grabbing the leader’s guitar. “Sometimes God’s love can be hard to swallow,” the type mutters. “Yeah? Not as hard as a dinner plate,” Jay growls. (Cut to Gal chuckling.) “God loves you.” “Does he?” shoots back Jay. “Well tell God from me if you’re the type of people He hangs about with, stay out of my way. No more guitar, mate. Not in restaurants. There’s a time and a place, and your time and place is in a very isolated location where no one’s likely to be for about a fucking hundred years, okay? ‘Cause Jimmy Hendrix you ain’t.” And with that he throws the guitar on the floor.

The comic menace of this sequence partly offsets the real menace and partly augments it. So do Jay’s conciliatory chats with Shel via Skype. Shel’s in on the men’s game. “On schedule?” she asks via Skype. “Course,” Jay says. “Clean?” she asks. “Don’t worry, I’m all right.” Jay and Gal’s easy camaraderie does the same, makes us their chums and ups the creepy factor. What about: “Let’s go kill that M.P.” Off to work they go. “The air’s good,” says Jay, once they’re out in the woods on the M.P.’s estate. “Yeah, we should do this more often,” says Gal. “What? Kill rich people?” asks Jay. “No,” laughs Gal, “get out in the fresh air.”

The orderly way Jay and Gal go about their killing at first makes it look just like any old dull job, low level detective work, say. But by second kill, which unearths a porn stash and a snuff film, the hits turn gruesome. What Jay sees unleashes such a rage in him he gets medieval with a hammer. “You’re well off your list now, mate,” Gal tells Jay. Things also grow spooky. When we see a woman wave to Jay from a distance, we remember Fiona drawing hex marks behind a mirror the night of the dinner party. What the heck is going on? Well, one of Wheatley’s other things is mystification. Hence his removing much of the reference to actual crimes in Down Terrace. But this time he adds hints, and teases.

The men have stepped into a pile of shit and Shel wants them to pull out, a decision, however, that they find is not theirs to make. The finale is spectacular, but naturalistic. Critics of the film insist it swerves off in a direction so bizarre the tail wags the dog, but there are plenty of hints and portents all along the way to make each morphing of the action well prepared for. Wheatley has crafted an interesting, complex and surprisingly ambitious film that intentionally keeps the viewer continually unsettled.


Film Rating: ★★★★☆

  1. Craig Pay says

    My favourite movie of the last 5 years, I love it to bits and three or four viewings later its lost little of its power in my book. Excellent review man.

  2. Chris Knipp says

    Thanks! I enjoy following this director. I am sure there is plenty for subsequent viewings. I really want to see his (their) new one, Sightseers, just missed it in New York.

  3. Olly Buxton says

    would be v interested in your view of Sightseers Chris. I *hated* it.

  4. Chris Knipp says

    I’ll let y’all know when I know.

  5. John Chard says

    Great review for a great film Chris.

  6. Chris Knipp says

    Thanks, I do like the positive feedback! 🙂

  7. Olly Buxton says

    Chris you should publish your reviews – seriously. Put a kindle edition together of your favourite ones. I’d buy it.

  8. Chris Knipp says

    Thanks. That’s kind. I do publish them, several places online, which seems enough. To me the pleasure is in doing it.

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