Chinese 6, 11/5/2011, 11:59 PM
Egyptian-Spielberg, 11/6/2011, 8:00 PM
By Karina Wilson
KILL LIST is Brit Ben Wheatley’s follow-up to DOWN TERRACE, his 2009 lo-fi crime comedy. Wheatley continues to riff on the ordinary criminal classes, in this case two ex-army grunts, Jay (Neil Maskell) and Gal (Michael Smiley), who’ve carved out a second career as twitchy hitmen. Their typical MO involves a list (the kill list) of targets, to be stalked, killed and disposed of with DEXTER-esque efficiency.
Act One establishes Jay and Gal as rooted in suburban mundanity (the film was shot in Sheffield). Jay argues with his hot Swedish blonde wife, Shel (MyAnna Buring), about the cost of the jacuzzi she just had installed. Conflict builds over dinner with Gal, and his girlfriend, Fiona (Emma Fryer). They’ve not “worked” in eight months and everyone’s feeling the pinch. Jay and Gal think that one last kill list will solve their problems. They tell Fiona, who’s new in Gal’s life, that they’re in “commercial sales”, none of that “knocking on doors with flannels and teatowels.” One last weekend on the road, then they’re out of the game for good.
So far, Mike Leigh meets neo-noir. But things take a turn for the weird when Jay and Gal meet with The Client, a white-haired wealthy guy who demands a blood compact and knows an awful lot about what went down on their last, botched job in Kiev. Although they try to laugh it off, there’s something definitely skewed about this latest assignment. It starts innocuously enough, in a beige hotel, with Jay confronting guitar-playing God-botherers in a restaurant and frightening them into silence. They’ve stopped laughing altogether by the time it becomes apparent that their first target is a priest, who appears to be expecting them, and even thanks them for a bullet in the head. Next stop, a pornographer-librarian who also seems grateful, and the rising sensation that everything is out of control.
Up until the midpoint, Jay can still rationalize what he’s doing; all the menace and the head-popping, and the tossing of incriminating body parts into fire. “It doesn’t feel wrong when it’s bad people,” he says. Then, suddenly, everything feels completely wrong as Jay finds himself trapped in a WICKER MAN nightmare of flaming torches and straw masks and the spiraling bloodshed is far beyond his control, or the scope of any list.
KILL LIST has been criticized for incoherence, lack of structure, logic failure and meaningless violence. It’s certainly not a movie that panders to audience expectations and in many ways it defies categorization. It provides a running commentary on contemporary social ills (returning soldiers with murder ingrained, social services cuts, class war, materialism) without preaching from a fixed moral position—aided by a constantly shifting camera perspective and ellipses in the editing. The horrors that Jay and Gal face well-up out of nowhere, but there are some disturbing links to their shared past, and it’s hinted that their assassination activities have made them culpable. Is their persecution related to the Kiev fiasco? A vengeful Fiona (Gal admits to Jay early in Act Two that he “Woke up this morning with a Dear John taped to my cock”)? Ancient Druidic traditions? KILL LIST’s brutal finale steers clear of easy answers and leaves many troubling questions hanging in the wind. It’s the perfect midnight movie.
Karina Wilson writes at Horror Film History.