Tuesday, November 26, 2013


The one thing Ben Wheatley's 'Kill List' does extremely well is to demythologise the figure of the hitman. The existential cool of Alain Delon in 'Le Samorai', the quasi-mysticism of Jean Reno in 'Leon', are here replaced with a couple of ex-soldier, ex-private-security types named Jay (Neil Maskell) and Gal (Michael Smiley). Both live in blandly anonymous English suburbs. Both, when they're not killing people (and as the film opens it's been eight months since their last job), live relatively mundane lives. Jay and his Swedish wife Shel (MyAnna Buring) bicker and trade recriminations as the money runs out, seemingly staying together for no other reason than their seven-year old son. Gal drinks a lot and chases women. His latest squeeze is Fiona (stand-up comedian Emma Fryer - badly miscast), who works in Human Resources and seems to enjoy the downsizing a little too much. Fiona's depersonalised language in a dinner party scene that plays out with all the tensions, resentments and acrimony of a Mike Leigh film but without Leigh's trademark observational humour to leaven it, is just one of several instances of heavy foreshadowing.

Wheatley also ladles on symbolism: an arching rainbow as Jay and Gal meet their mysterious client for a new job; Jay's blood on a sheet of parchment; dead rabbits; a whole textbook of Arthurian imagery sneakily incorporated into a seemingly realistic aesthetic of motorways, chain hotels, identikit suburban houses. Britain as homogenous and ugly. It's therefore genuinely startling, then, when the last act erupts in a phantasmagoria of 'Wicker Man'-style paganism. Not that the shift from crime thriller to horror movie is as swervingly discordant as, say, 'From Dusk Till Dawn'. A pagan symbol marking out one of the characters for ... well, something ... means the film plays its hand fairly early on, and the smiling acceptance of several of Jay and Gal's targets is as good an indication as anything else that something very different from the archetypal hitman thriller is going on here.

Wheatley has said in interview that he was less interested, while co-writing the screenplay with Amy Jump (his wife and long-term co-writer), with traditional plot-driven narrative than how individual scenes play off against each other. It shows. Watching 'Kill List' is a wildly contradictory experience, to the point at which, as the end credits rolled and I ejected the DVD almost vehemently, I hadn't enjoyed it as a cumulative viewing experience and didn't feel any urge to write about. A day later, the film having crawled around in my mind like an acid-coated virus, I was relishing the prospect of hammering out a review and trying to engage with it.

Ah, but there's the rub. Getting into even a moderately in-depth dialogue about 'Kill List' involves flinging out spoilers left, right and centre. Although you could argue that they're not necessarily spoilers since Wheatley doesn't so much tie all of the film's implications, insinuations and semi-revelations together as leave everything as open-to-interpretation as possible. Also, a lot of my thoughts on the film over the last 24 hours have been, not shaped but certainly influenced, by online discussion threads. So I'm at a crossroads: I don't want to (a) spoil a couple of jaw-droppingly brilliant didn't-see-that-coming moments, or (b) rigorously debate an interpretation that I didn't arrive at myself.

Here, then, are some spoiler-friendly thoughts on the film. As a commentary on Britain as corrupt, riddled with things that are hidden, and ruled by degenerates, it makes its point in brutal and unflinching fashion. Wheatley films violence in a way that's reminiscent of early Scorsese: a sudden eruption from the fabric of the film that recedes just as suddenly. The violence is resolutely scoured of anything that might be misconstrued as glamorous or iconic, be it Jay and Gal emotionlessly lining a victim's office with plastic sheeting prior to shooting him in the head, or a bit of business with a hammer when Jay discovers a mark is a child-pornographer and opts for a less-professional-than-usual approach to the job. It's almost - almost - a moral film.

When Wheatley squares up to religion, politics, power structures, familial dysfunction and the failure of masculine ethics, he delivers powerhouse scenes. His plumbing of the superstition and paganism that never seems that far in Britain's past is a brave and interesting move, but the imagery he conjures during the last 15 minutes is so evocative of 'The Wicker Man' that 'Kill List' doesn't quite survive the comparison. 'The Wicker Man' is precise and focused in its narrative where 'Kill List' is elliptical. 'The Wicker Man' ends with a shot that is devastating and final and inescapable while 'Kill List' stumbles bluntly into 'A Serbian Film' territory for its abrupt denouement while still leaving the crucial "why" of it all unanswered.

As I mentioned earlier, there's an interpretation that many of the film's commentators have settled on - let's just say that, conceptually, it suggests that 'Kill List' has more affinity with 'The Omen' than 'The Wicker Man' - and which accounts for much of the symbolism but still doesn't quite hold water. That Wheatley chose to jettison a more traditional narrative approach in favour of something more organic sometimes works against the film - particularly since, as genres, crime and horror tend to be very story-driven. Likewise, Wheatley's po-faced direction is occasionally at odds with the script's deviations into black humour. Played more as a dark comedy, 'Kill List' might have been clearer in its intent and its broadsides more emphatic. There's a splendid scene where, posing as travelling salesmen, Jay and Gal find themselves sharing an otherwise empty hotel dining room with a small group of born again Christians. Jay's slow-burn reaction gives the script's clearest exposition of his mindset, as well as paying off in a way that's both edgy and genuinely funny. Wheatley and his cast find a perfect register and I can't help but speculate how wonderful 'Kill List' would have been had it struck this balance through the majority of its running time.


Elwood Jones said...

This for me like everything Wheatly has directed to date, just didn't work for me. Perhaps I just had too high hopes for it, especially considering how other people raved on about it, or maybe it just works on a level outside of my own critical thinking?

Needless to say I wasn't exactly in a rush to rewatch it, why begging the question as to why British cinema always seems to be so obsessed with painting things as grim as possible?

Good review

Neil Fulwood said...

I'm hearing you! It's perfectly possible to make a film about Britain that engages with what an essentially fucked up country it is (I say this as a native) and make it look like a movie and not a grim Panorama documentary from the 70s. 'The World's End' manages to do it. And yet so many British films don't. So many British films look like they should have been shot on 16mm and shown as a one-off TV drama sandwiched between 'Coronation Street' and a repeat of 'Abigail's Party'.

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