Made in Britain: Kill List (2011)
Well, this is a turn up for the books: a British Horror movie released in the 21st Century starring nobody famous, made by nobody famous that’s actually good. No, scratch that, Kill List, TV director Ben Wheatley’s second feature length film is brilliant: a raw, visceral and thoroughly savage film that is, quite simply, the finest film I’ve seen this year.
Britain historically has been exceptionally good at two genres of film. The first is horror: from Hammer to the modern directors such as Neil Marshall, we’ve consistently turned out top drawer scary movies, many of which have become seminal. The other, and probably more typically British, type is the Kitchen Sink Drama. Since Look Back in Anger in the 1950’s, we’ve had a fascination with the minutiae of working class domestic life, most recently manifested in the films of Mike Leigh or Shane Meadows. Kill List fits into this tradition, but takes the usual sub-surface menace inherent in kitchen sink drama, and ratchets up the tension, because this isn’t a traditional working class family.
Jay (Neill Maskell) and Chel (The Descent’s MyAnna Buring) are having problems. Their marriage is riven with arguments over money (he’s a hitman that hasn’t worked in 8 months) and he’s clearly suffering some form of post-traumatic stress from the last job in Kiev. We never find the details out, but it’s clear that Chel knows what went down, and what he does for a living. During a disastrous dinner party with his best friend Gal (Michael Smiley) and his new girlfriend Fiona (a superb Emma Fryer cast completely against type, as she’s usually a comic actress) Jay is recruited for a job that promises to be a short list with easy money. The film follows the two men on the job as they work their way through the list starting with a Priest before the world gets twisted beyond all recognition for them.
It’s probably best to know nothing about this film before seeing it. I knew very little, and as a result this was one of the most powerful cinema experiences of the year for me (the only other contender is Norwegian Wood). As the film finished the audience sat there visibly stunned, with some members (Mrs. Jarv) openly crying at the finale. I’ve seen a lot of horror films, but never anything that provokes a reaction like this one. Kill list is one of the most difficult films to watch in a long time, but it is no exaggeration to say that it’s a cathartic experience, a brain enema that leaves you emotionally drained and mentally beaten up.
Why is it so tough to watch? The premise is fairly generic and simplistic, and the horror section of the film (the last third) is hugely derivative (think The Wicker Man with guns). Well, with Kill List the devil is in the detail. The first third of the film meticulously establishes the relationship between Chel, Jay and their son. We see their domestic arguments provoked by nonsensical matters such as gravy in a Pyrex jug (or toilet paper), and we watch them playing together in the garden with real affection. This is a normal, likeable family and we don’t want their lives to be ripped asunder. Furthermore, the relationship between Jay and Gal is extremely believable and there’s a feeling of recognition to the back and forth banter between the characters. These could be any two mates, that they are hitmen is almost extraneous to what we watch building. As a nice touch, the fight between the two men before the last job is a hilarious rolling around on the floor playground style fight and there’s a feeling that both of them are holding back from what they’re capable of. Brilliantly,having had a dust up, they then sit down together for a beer. This is superb.
The relationships primarily are so effective because of the performance. I’d only seen Smiley before, but he’s brilliant here- there’s a wry sense of humour to much of his dialogue and he works well to lighten proceedings. Maskell is also good as Jay, being frighteningly psychotic on occasion and he pitches the tone of his performance perfectly, particularly when he starts to become more confused towards the finale. However, the star turn here is Buring. This is a stellar performance, and she deserves serious plaudits. Chel has a shadowy background, and becomes a terrifying Lady Macbeth type character, she’s very much the driving force in the relationship, and it’s her harassing of Jay that forces him down the path to tragedy.
The camera work is mostly hand held. This is usually very off putting, but here it provides an intimacy and sense of verisimilitude that the film needs. This is essential, because what Kill List does exceptionally well is show the banality of evil. Neither Jay nor Gal are nice people, being contract killers, but the film humanises them by showing them in their domesticity, Jay arguing with his wife because he forgot to buy toilet roll, or Gal sitting in his dressing gown nursing a hangover talking about how Fiona gaffer taped his cock up. These are two of the most mundane anti-heroes ever seen, and I can’t think of another film with hitmen in it where they drive a Vauxhall Corsa (crap car for teenage girls).
In the climactic third, the camera work is used to heighten the confusion that Jay is suffering, he’s clearly off the deep end and the dreamy hallucinatory quality of the film accentuates the horror. There, actually, has been a sense of wrongness throughout proceedings, sometimes overtly like when the Priest thanks Jay for killing him, and sometimes in just a sense of time and place. The film has operated on a slow burn, like Audition, and what we are watching for the most part is a whole lot of nothing punctuated by the occasional piece of sickening violence.
Regarding the violence, this is an extremely brutal film, but also an extremely dirty one. Jay takes a hammer to the second victim and the cracks of bone are truly awful as he whales on the guys leg, then arm, then eventually head. It’s fucking hard to watch, however, the film has already established him as a dirty kiddy fiddling cunt and, I hate to say this, but you side with Jay. Incidentally, the look of horror on Jay’s face when he sees the snuff videos is frightening to behold, you know that the hurt is coming soon. Furthermore, when Jay cleans up the rest of the ring the combination of appalling personal violence and complete and utter contempt is again hard to watch. There’s no doubt that Jay is a monster with morals (he even kills the dog). Incidentally, there isn’t actually that much in the way of murder in the film, but when it comes it has a shocking nature; it feels “real” as it’s laboured and savage. Jay breathing hard as he smashes a man’s face into pulp off a wall is a sight that’s going to stay with me a long time after the film ends.
The score and sound work in general is fantastic. The music consists of discord and frantic industrial noises, but the real stunner is the climax, which is virtually soundless. The brutality we are witnessing is emotional and horrific, and Wheatley allows the, admittedly absurd, imagery to stand by itself. The almost total absence of sound adds to the dream-like quality of the scene and accentuates the barbarism we are watching.
To deal with the criticism of the final third out there- this is, at the end of the day, a horror film. There are a lot of people that are misunderstanding what we are seeing. The last section is ambiguous, and deliberately so, because we don’t know what Jay is or isn’t actually witnessing. I’m trying to do this without spoiling, but it’s damned difficult. Nevertheless, the stand-out piece of horror imagery in the film is the crown of thorns blinding the woman at the black mass. Yuck.
Overall, this isn’t a cheery film, but it is an outstanding one. It may possibly be the best horror film since The Descent, and it’s certainly the best film that I’ve seen this year. Kill List is an astonishingly powerful film, a brutal and unrelenting slice of grimy horror and simply downright terrifying. I’m giving it 3.5 Satanic Flanders’ out of 4, and I’m docking it half a point because I don’t think I’ll be rewatching it. As a one-shot deal, though, Kill List is the best film of 2011.
Superb, and more films should feature hitmen shooting devil worshipping politicians.
Until Next time,