Ben Wheatley’s “Kill List” had already been talked and written about to death, well before the film’s home viewing debut on double-play Blu-ray and DVD courtesy of Studio Canal: that’s the fate these days of any clearly high quality genre piece, and it means you probably already know how good I’m going to say this film is. Indeed, you probably already know too much about how good this film is. And that is nearly always the first thing that’s said about works such as this skilfully made, unsettling descent into the crippled psyche of contemporary Britain -- that the less you know going into it the better. Which rather puts the humble reviewer in an impossible position, but I shall crack on anyhow. You can forget “The King’s English” – “Kill List” is the greatest British film of the last ten years. I hesitate to say greatest British horror film or even greatest British crime film because, as you no doubt already know, it’s both of these things yet, at the same time, neither. Wheatley has elegantly fused just about every major trend in British cinema of the last half century into one elegantly ambiguous allegory, the full implications of which remain disturbingly just out of reach and therefore infinitely scarier.
It’s interesting to compare this film with the recent controversial release “A Serbian Film” -- a movie with which “Kill List” shares an awful lot of its thematic and narrative resonances. That too touted itself as a state-of-the-nation allegory, although in that case it felt more like duplicitous spiel, justification for the film’s wild, controversy courting exploitation excesses. Wheatley’s film on the other hand is a superb master class in implied threat, the conjuring of a palpable atmosphere of impending doom from the most prosaic of details. Here is a recognisable world in which chains of big city hotels and their samely decored corridors and anonymous rooms (their succession of uniformed, flatly courteous lobby receptionists) are rendered as bleak receptacles of unspecified but inevitable doom. The film’s protagonists live in ordinary looking out of town suburbs, full of privet hedges fringing new build red brick housing developments. But underneath the pretty anonymity there’s a sense that something rotten is festering; and then there’s that most modern symbol of suburban unease at the current state of the country -- the wind turbine, joining its partner the power line to cast a pall of existential despair over what’s left of the modern English landscape, still clinging at the edges of contemporary life.
British horror has always been at its best and excelled in taking the everyday and the prosaically bland and injecting a sense of profound unease into them. Think of the cinema of Pete Walker, who consistently found ways to breed Gothic-tinged madness in the most apparently well-heeled suburban homes of 1970s Britain. At heart “Kill List” is a good old fashioned conspiracy thriller laced with the best bits of classic 1970s British cinema. To be crass you could say its “Get Carter” meets “The Wicker Man” (although Wheatley has also cited “The Parallax View” and “Race with the Devil”) shot with the ludic verve for editing and inventive sound collage of Nicolas Roeg in his prime, or Stanley Kubrick circa “The Shinning”. Even the casting seems calculated to encourage the idea of genre mash-up, with modern British horror queen MyAnna Buring (“The Descent”) cast as the dissatisfied but determined Swedish wife of Neil Maskell, known from many of his previous films as the quintessential cockney gangster hard man. Here he’s a polo shirt-wearing ex-soldier called Jay, struggling to hold his marriage and his finances together in the face of a modern recession caused by barely understandable global forces as nefarious as those responsible for his previous posting in Iraq, before he was forced to make his way in the world outside of the army. That sense of feeling out of control of the trajectory of one’s own life, that your decisions have already been cast for you in the interests of malignant forces that will never be fully understood, is the defining feature of the sense of paranoia at the heart of this film.
It’s true that “Kill List” in some ways moves through a check list of genre influences: we start with a Mike Leigh-like, slice-of-life domestic realist drama, move unexpectedly into hard boiled modern British crime flick territory then segue across to, not exactly horror as such, but the kind of offbeat uncanny weirdness that has always been at the heart of the British supernatural tradition, from MR James to Robert Aickman. Yet despite these transitions, the film develops a strong and consistent mood which percolates all the way through it in its entirety -- a mood largely created by Wheatley’s jarring editing strategies involving jump cuts, freeze frames, slow motion and an unexpected use of giant caption cards that suddenly comes in half-way through; and then there’s a completely fabulous score by Jim Williams that ties together all the genre moves seamlessly with edgy string laments or abstract low frequency electronic abstractions, and which climaxes in a suggestively plaintive coral piece that accompanies a beautifully eerie scene near the end of the movie which involves a torch-lit procession by moonlight through some rain-lashed woods, which was apparently based on one of Wheatley’s nightmares as a child, and echoes of which, we come to realise, have been seen and heard at various points all the way through.
Wheatley’s great skill is made evident in the way he manages to make just about everything seem weird and potentially threatening. Even when nothing much out of the ordinary seems to be going on, he’ll always find a way to creep you out with a discordant sound effect here, an edgy music cue there or a weirdly unsettling and confusing montage of images. Even a sequence in which a domestic home dinner party made up of family friends ends the evening with a slow dance to a slushy Joan Armatrading confessional in the living room, suddenly turns odd when Wheatley cuts in a shot of one of the apparently benign guests visiting the bathroom and proceeding to indulge in some sort of occult-tinged chicanery there. Shot with consummate skill and care by Laurie Rose (who mostly works in TV on shows such as, of all things, “The X Factor”) on often hand-held RED digital video cameras, “Kill List” always looks natural yet forbidding, is shot mostly around real locations, and often makes use of the natural light of its locales.
The domestic soap begins with messed up, out-of-work Jay and his ever-resourceful wife Shel arguing over money and the fact that Jay hasn’t worked in eight months, while their young son Sam (Harry Simpson) listens to the shouting discord of miscommunicating parents echoing around their identikit estate home. Then a night in with friends turns into an evening of squirming embarrassment in largely cast-improvised scenes where Jay and Shell bicker over the lamb slices across the dinner table, while Jay’s ex-army pal Gal (Michael Smiley) and his current girlfriend, ‘Human Resources Manager (‘you mean, you sack people?’) Fiona (Emma Fryer), look-on with cringy helplessness.
It transpires that the kind of work Shel wants Jay to get back into again is not the kind of work most people would find acceptable in the first place. Despite fifteen minutes of slice-of-life, improvised ‘everyday’ soap drama, it’s revealed that Jay and Gal are actually contract killers and that Jay has an evil-looking pump action machine gun stashed in his lock-up, next to the crates of beer and the lawn mowing equipment. Partners Gal and Jay were once involved in some sort of assignment in Kiev that turned ugly, and Jay hasn’t worked in ‘the trade’ again since. But Gal has another job lined up that could solve all Shel’s money worries. The two friends meet up with the elderly suited client (Struan Rodger) in a vast, dimly lit hotel tearooms near Sheffield and get handed a list of names and addresses, the deal sealed with a peculiarly brutal blood bond – a deep gash made in Jay’s palm. But as Jay and Gal methodically make their way from hotel to hotel and from steel grey car park to car park, working their way through the death list that includes a priest and a rich English MP among its names, the duo stumble into a disorientating world that’s even more depraved than they themselves already are. They discover a grim stash of what might be snuff movies or might be child porn (we never get to see which: the sight of a hardened killer scrabbling to shut off the DVD in disgust and horror is enough) in a librarian’s warehouse lock-up, and it sends Jay over the edge, setting him off on an uncontrollably psychotic Kill crazy rampage. The odd thing is, his victims all seem not only calm but positively thankful when Jay is dispensing rough justice with a claw hammer in what are some of the most grotesquely violent scenes you will ever see in the modern cinema, made all the more upsetting by the fact that they’re frequently taking place not in some dank, cliché-ridden, green-lit torture dungeon, but in someone’s absurdly quaint looking kitchen, with hanging baskets on the wall. Appalled by the rabidly escalating violence that’s been unleashed (in them, more than anyone else) the duo try and opt out. But when they attempt to extract themselves from the job, Jay and Gal’s unyielding client calmly promises them that both they and their families will all be killed unless they complete the assignment as agreed (‘so no wiggle room, then?’ quips the ever ironic Gal).
To get too specific about what happens next would spoil the whole ride, but you will have heard enough to know that the film takes a sharp left turn into the realm of the uncanny, in a plot development that involves a strange, murderous satanic cult. In fact, as I’ve said, the tone of the movie is consistent throughout and the satanic component flagged up early on, Wheatley has created a disturbing nightmarish world full of brooding non sequiturs attached to a narrative of horror-laden dream logic, and melded it with realist cinematic tropes such as improvised dialogue, hand held camera footage and docudrama stylisation .
Some critics have complained about the fact that we aren’t ever given ‘an explanation’ for it all at the end or explicitly told ‘what it all means’, but really that kind of complaint should be taken about as seriously as someone asking who that funny little red dwarf really is at the end of “Don’t Look Now”. It misses the point. Rather than summarising the content of the final half hour I should leave you with a series of the film’s most potent images, related randomly and in no particular order: a trussed up pet cat hung up dead outside its owner’s front door; a patrician doctor prepared only to issue gnomic aphorisms (‘The past is finished. The future is not yet here. The present is all there is’) as his treatment for a septic cut to the hand; a grotesque, shrieking hunchback in a straw mask; a woman, dressed in a coat made of bank notes, swinging from a noose at the climax of a mysterious ceremony, while a circle of naked masked people applaud; a priest smiles and says ‘thank you’, just before he is shot through the head.
Ben Wheatley has claimed in previous interviews that he always had the entire rationale for everything that happens in the film mapped out in his head, and that all the clues are there, even if he’s deliberately refrained from providing all the answers in the narrative. A second viewing certainly furnishes the viewer with a whole slew of ominous foreshadowings, and some later events are mirrored in apparently benign early sequences the significance of which can’t be appreciated the first time round. And if you watch the film with Ben and his wife Amy Jump’s (who is also the film’s co-writer) commentary, Wheatley does actually reveal a few extra tit bits of info about what he envisioned the objectives of the cult to have been (it relates to the leader’s comments about ‘reconstruction’).
But much of this isn’t really important. Like all the best films in which dream logic plays a role (“Mulholland Drive”, “Don’t Look Now”) “Kill List” seems to exist in its own self-contained realm. It’s made all the more suggestive through merely hinting at a sense that invisible ties shape and influence the fate of its doomed protagonists rather than spelling out each and every move and objective behind the conspiracy. We only ever know as much as the characters at the centre of the plot do about what is happening, and that only amplifies the creeping sense of helplessness and powerlessness we start to feel along with them, as events become increasingly hard to fathom and their lives gradually unravel. Ultimately the film seems to play to an increasing sense that modern life has stopped making sense and that vast untameable economic forces with great power over us are now in complete control (or out of control). If the 1970s was the decade in which the paranoid conspiracy thriller came into its own, then the genre may be about to experience a great resurgence as the world becomes increasingly confusing and unpredictable. Few will manage to fan the flames of paranoia as effectively as Ben Wheatley manages to do here, though.
Studio Canal bring “Kill List” to Blu-ray in an magnificent looking HD transfer featuring an excellent 5.1 DTS-HD Master audio track. The sound design of this film is really something special and is largely responsible, along with Wheatley’s often abstract jumpy editing, for creating the incredibly palpable sense of dread which permeates the whole work. It comes across brilliantly here and the HD transfer is also very fine. The disc’s extras consist of two commentaries, one with husband and wife writing team Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump and the other with principle cast members Neil Maskell, MyAnna Buring and Harry Simpson. Between them they manage to cover a great deal of ground in relating how the film came about and how the three week shooting schedule developed. There are also a series of short featurettes and interviews with Director Ben Wheatley and cast members Maskell and Buring, as well as contributions from producers Claire Jones and Andrew Starke. The Blu-ray edition also features a DVD copy of course, or you can buy a DVD version on its own separately. Whichever option you plump for, know that “Kill List” is a must see addition to the annals of Brit horror and destined to become a classic of its kind for sure. Highly recommended.
Read more from Black Gloves at Nothing But The Night!