Monday, March 12, 2012

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". 
IFC Films


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Monday, March 12
, 2012

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 unstable mind. 

For all its horror flourishes "Kill List" operates principally as a brooding, slow-burning 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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