Kill List is a low budget British horror film that deals with two hit men who take on a job that leads them down some dark paths. Co-writer and director Ben Wheatley certainly loves variety, as it is a film with a host of genre and aesthetic lineages and a number of connotations.
The film follows Jay (Neil Maskell) and Gal (Michael Smiley), two good friends who meet up for dinner one night in Jay’s house. Jay’s wife Shel (MyAnna Buring) and Gal want Jay to get back to work, something that Jay doesn’t feel he can do. Over the course of the night, his financial difficulties and the toll they are taking on his marriage reach melting point and Jay accepts.
The shape of the storyline early on, not to mention the realist aesthetic, seem to point to an entirely different type of film. The twist is that Jay and Gal are hit men and their job is the murder of three people: a priest, a librarian and an MP. The film by turns focuses on Jay’s troubled marriage and the anxiety this is giving their seven-year old son, Sam (Harry Simpson) before becoming a film about working hit men, with a look at Hawksian masculinity thrown into the bargain. Jay and Gal are veterans from the war in Iraq and their approach to the job is very much like a military operation. They are both outsiders, who think that their job is somehow returning the balance to the world that seems to have left them behind. There is also a strand that focuses on Jay’s mental health that runs throughout the film, suggesting that it is a film about post-traumatic stress disorder. A further twist later on turns the film down a more unexpected road and the film becomes a proper genre horror film.
As a result, there is a lot of subtext in Kill List, and it all gets a little too messy. One element of the film that really works is the director’s professed desire to demystify the hit man, a figure who has somehow become a modern-day knight, most explicitly in James Mangold’s Knight and Day and Tarantino’s Kill Bill. These films tend to glorify what is essentially someone who would murder anyone as long as the price is right. Wheatley shows his hit men in mundane settings and there is an emphasis, at least to begin with, on the everyday life of a hit man. Ultimately, the realist aesthetic creates a portrait of hit men who are violent, sadistic and definitely not sexy. In one scene, one that will certainly become the film’s talking point, in which a man is beaten to a pulp by a hammer, Wheatley refuses to cut away from the carnage to allow the audience breathing space to continue sympathising with the protagonists. The effect created gives an idea of the true horror of violence and seems to make an almost polemical statement against flippant and stylised gore.
However, the film, in its constant attempts to wrong-foot it’s audience, ends up wrong footing itself. The later turn towards genre horror, as opposed to the horror of the everyday, feels like a mistake, despite the fact that it has been sign-posted throughout the film. Kill List becomes a mishmash of a variety of themes, ideas and genres, where a more focused film would have been more effective. It is a film that feels like it doesn’t know where it’s going and that every element in the film, whether it works or not, is there largely by accident. On top of this, the ending is botched. Seemingly concerned that the ending would come too early and be confusing or would come too late and risk being too obvious, the filmmakers end the film at a point that ties up certain themes and ideas but not others. By refusing to tie everything up (which is commendable), the film inadvertently shows itself to be both badly thought out and oddly unfinished. There is little of a conclusion on any level.
Ben Wheatley has crafted an alternately powerful and unconvincing film that manages to be scary until the clichéd horror histrionics kicks in. He seems to be an up-and-coming talent, though one given to going off on tangents. Hopefully his subsequent films will be more coherent and more potent for it.