Genre-bending UK thriller Kill List has been turning heads on the festival circuit for a while now. Does this independent darling bring the goods to match the hype or does it buckle under the weight of its own twisted ambitions?
Ever since catching websphere rumblings about Ben Wheatley’s hitman-horror hybrid back in March, I’ve kept my ear close to the ground when it came to Kill List and its eventual theatrical release in the states. Well, despite a lengthy delay, the film has finally made it to limited release here in the US, and, rest assured, the wait has been worth it.
Every bit a disenchanted love letter to two of film’s most iconic (and maligned) genres, the seedy underworld/hit-man narrative and 1970s psychological-horror, Kill List immediately sets itself apart from the contemporary cinematic crime exploration in tone and (pun intended, I guess…) execution. Twists, turns, and torment abound, Wheatley daringly takes narrative niche on a slow-burn to the maniacal, the likes of which have rarely seen comparison.
If the ominously etched rune introducing the film doesn’t cue you into the devious intents lurking just beneath the surface of the first half hour or so, than you’re in for way more than you probably bargained for. Nestled in an unassuming British suburbia, Jay, an Iraq War veteran who’s turned to contract killing to make ends-meat for his family, finds himself deep in paralyzing emotional turmoil after an enigmatically botched job in Kiev. With the fam in dire financial circumstances and Jay unable (or unwilling) to find work since the incident, tensions run high between him and his wife, Shel. Explosive spats during listless days and dinner parties leave Jay seeking refuge in best friend/partner-in-homicide, Gal. At said dinner party, Gal propositions Jay about a potential job, eventually convincing Jay to get out of his psychological rut. All the while, Gal’s new girlfriend is stealthily carving runes on the back of Jay’s bathroom mirror, and the “WTF”-fest begins!
What follows includes blood-pacts, necrotic wounds, clergy assassinations, overzealous fake-swordfights, mercilously beating the sh*t of a pedophile with a hammer, droning chants, enough cult-based weirdness to make Kubrick cringe in his coffin. Wheatley goes heavy on violence, light on the dialogue, mysterious on the backgrounds, and deep on the connotations: who are the guys Jay and Gal are working for? What happened in Kiev? Do the desired ends justify the deplorable means? The film’s at its best when exploring the complexities of human relationships (whether familial or fraternal) under terrible ethical circumstances, and engrosses with a convincing portrayal of man split between his morals and his job. The horror aspects, which play significantly into the narrative in the latter half of the film, are quite effective and intense, though less impressive than the preceding melodrama. The finale in particular, while shocking, desperately lacks satisfactory conclusion, leaving the audience with far more questions than answers. That said, its obvious Wheatley’s aims for such an abrupt and brutal ending were meant to leave the film feeling shrouded and hauntingly mysterious.
While it does some things better than others, Kill List is nonetheless an unnerving jaunt into unique film-making territory. Grounded by a strong cast, jarring style, and unsettling atmosphere, it definitely managed to surpass my expectations and slay the stale image of the cinematic hitman saga with brutal effectiveness. Consider yourselves warned!