Kill List We Really Need To Talk About Our Boy Jay In The U.K.
Neil Maskell as Jay in Ben Wheatley's horror-thriller "Kill List".
Omar P.L. Moore/PopcornReel.com
Monday, March 12,
Ben Wheatley's debut film "Down Terrace" (2009) was an awkward,
unsettling dark comedy of patricide. His second film, "Kill List", which
is making its way around the U.S. and opens in San Francisco on Friday
exclusively at the S.F. Film Society Cinema, is exponentially darker, daring and
powerful. Set in the Yorkshire Dales in England, "Kill List" tells the
story of Jay (Neil Maskell) and Gal (Michael Smiley), friends and hit men who
try to redeem a botched kill assignment eight months prior by killing three
people on a list. It won't be easy.
Jay's housewife Shel (MyAnna Buring) knows her husband is rough trade. She
lambasts him for not bringing home the bacon. It's a tirade Jay's heard
before. Their only child is barely shielded from their fights. Gal
and girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer) have a wild sex life we're told, so wild in
fact, that Gal has to do something that sounds impossible after a session with
her. The pleasure must be worth it. Meanwhile Jay's struggle to stay
in the middle class is met with aristocratic, powerful clients who offer to pay
him big money and count on his allegiance to executing their wishes in blood.
"It's not right for a man to live in all that," Gal says during a reconnoitering
of one rich victim's premises. "None of it's right. That's why we're
here," Jay replies, somewhat detached. A larger question "Kill List" asks,
is, at what price does the dream of making it cost and how is it achieved?
Through primordial hunter-gathering? Through exploring the ugliest, primal
impulses and taboo-shattering unmentionables?
"Kill List" can be taken in one of several ways: as some kind of readily
dismissable ridiculous, laughable nonsense, as an extension of Mr. Wheatley's
gallows' humor, or as demented, macabre comedic horror-fantasy. The latter
two, I think, qualify. More focused and intense than "Down Terrace", "Kill
List" nevertheless takes full inventory of the various genres it plays with,
including its flirtation with grind house cinema and the horror-occult, the
latter into which it plunges headlong suddenly and dramatically in its final
third. The film glimpses blood family networks as well as the curiosity of
violence in the human condition, such as the gnawing impulse to slow to a crawl
to see a car wreck. "I have to see it now, don't I?" says one character,
in response to what sounds like a snuff film being played on a television during
one scene. We don't see the film but hear a woman's bloodcurdling screams
and a chainsaw, and imagine the excruciating pain. It's unsettling, as is
the look and reaction on the character's face who watches.
Mr. Wheatley has a few tricks and secrets up his sleeve, and some of the devices
he uses to unveil them are novel. Written by the director and Amy Jump,
"Kill List" explores the unmasking and savagery of the human heart and the
descent into deepest darkness and nihilism. The film dangles clues and
cues in a creepy way, with its jump-cutting techniques and strange sounds
bringing an unsettling atmosphere, tension and disorientation, as well as the
idea that we are living out this nightmarish hell through Jay's increasingly
For all its horror flourishes "Kill List" operates principally as a
thriller, percolating until it erupts in flashes of blunt, graphic violence and
dismemberment mixed with markers of foreboding. There's inane comedy
secreted in the film's most violent moments, often accompanied by commentary
from one of the characters, including those victimized. Mr. Wheatley
understands that if comedy comes from pain, then that pain should be the most
excessive and unbearable on display. The violence, often cartoonish and
outlandish, makes for its own crazy laugh track, albeit a gruesome one, which
some viewers will find difficult to watch.
The director treats the ordinary rituals of his characters like ceremony, with
symmetrical preparations of characters about to take a plunge into serious
business. Sometimes "Kill List" exercises discretion but its true strength
lies in encasing its horror in completely normal everyday environments, making
its overall effect authentic and by extension scary. There's no Bates
Motel or other horror motif to inform you that you're not in Kansas anymore.
All of a sudden you are in a place you don't want to be, and it's too late to
escape. You're in too deep, too far. You see things you don't want
to see. This shadowy place is familiar and much closer to home than
Kansas, making the results and possibilities arising from it rather
uncomfortable. Those on the kill list are all people we've been socialized
to trust, and Mr. Wheatley's perpetrators and hunters philosophize and carry out
their mission like vigilantes, though we don't know what it is the victims have
done to merit death sentences.
Astounding U.K. audiences in record numbers last year, the stylish "Kill List"
is like a sedative. It lures you, relaxes you, transfixes you, then when
it wears off shocks you to life in a jarring, powerful way. The
gut-socking ending of "Kill List", though not completely unexpected, blew my
mind and left me shaken to the core. When you have to take an extended
walk to clear your head after such a nervy, totally absorbing and frightening
experience like this, you know the filmmakers have succeeded. The impact of
"Kill List", a strong, visceral and haunting film, lingers in the mind for some
time. Mr. Wheatley and his actors have done their jobs so very well.
Oh, the horror.
With: Harry Simpson, Struan Rodger, Gareth Tunley, Mark Kempner, Damien Thomas,
Robert Hill, Esme Folley, James Nickerson, Rebecca Holmes.
"Kill List" is not rated by the Motion Picture
Association Of America. It contains extreme graphic bloody violence,
dismemberment of humans and animals, torture, full-frontal male and female
nudity, sexual suggestiveness, and a barrage of foul language. American
audiences may have difficulty understanding the Yorkshire and London accents and
stomaching the film's violence. The
film's running time is one hour and 36 minutes.
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