Kill List

UK (2011) Dir. Ben Wheatley

With four films currently to his credit Ben Wheatley has shown that he is not a director to sit still with one genre or style, yet has already established some recognisable traits of his own. Kill List, his second film, is something of a curio in the sense that it is a jarring combination of genres which will catch most viewers out if they miss the often subtle and abstract clues scattered throughout.

Our main character – protagonist is rather inapplicable in this instance – is Jay (Neil Maskell) a former soldier now working as a hitman with his best friend and fellow soldier Gal (Michael Smiley). As a result of his last mission in Kiev Kay is still suffering from an undisclosed post traumatic disorder, leaving him unable to work and causing money problems for Jay, his wife Shel (MyAnna Buring) and their son Sam (Harry Simpson).

At a dinner party with Gal and his new girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer), Gal takes Jay aside and offers him the chance to make some money from one more hit for a mysterious client who is willing to pay well. Shel hears the conversation and encourages Kay to take it and he reluctantly agrees. The client (Struan Rodger) gives them a list with three people on it to be killed but after the second job an uncomfortable discovery puts the lives of Gal and Jay in danger.

While it might be easy to mock a relatively familiar plotline, Wheatley takes it into places one wouldn’t normally expect it to go, which is either the genius of this film or its undoing. Straight away the characterisations stand out with Gal and Jay being former soldiers, making their skills and capacity for killing rather plausible. Wheatley isn’t one for exposition so the details are revealed through the partly improvised dialogue or scenes of demonstration, such as Jay’s frequent mood swings at home to illustrate his fragile psyche.

Nothing is explicitly disclosed so quite what happened to Jay and why it didn’t affect Gal too is left for us to only surmise Gal was lucky. Similarly we learn through the script that Shel is also a former soldier in her native Sweden, which allows us to assume this is why she is able to stand by Jay despite their constant bickering. It sounds like hard work for the viewer but with an 89 minute run time this serves as a rather effective and economical way to flesh out the characters.

Having spent the first act setting up what looks like a social drama we shift gears to something akin to gangster movie – note the “akin to” as this is important. The client is a typically shady chap but there is a rather sinister air about him as demonstrated when he cuts Jay’s hand to sign their deal in blood. An unusual move which is eventually explained but for now, it is another sign that Wheatley is quietly subverting a well populated film genre here.

The first hit goes off rather smoothly considering but the second sows the seeds for the dramatic turn that awaits our unsuspecting hitmen. The discovery of some rather nasty videos makes Jay take it out personally on their second victim and delivers a moment of shockingly graphic unbridled violence which I am surprised made it past the BBFC censors. Meanwhile Gal finds a stash of money that will cover the costs if they ditch the third hit while also finding some records about their time in service, including Kiev.

Where is this all going? This is where the audience is really slapped awake as what happens in the climax seems to come out of nowhere, testing your powers of observation throughout the preceding hour. Not to spoil it but we end up with what could initially be thought of as a Wicker Man tribute act or a spoof similar to the end of Hot Fuzz although we know that Wheatley means business. But this surreal and borderline comedic development does in fact have a place in this story, as disjointed as it may be.

Whatever reaction one has to this final act – which comes complete with the ambiguous abrupt ending to leave us guessing – there is no question that Wheatley has manipulated us psychologically to fall into this well laid trap, as if to say “you ain’t seen nothing yet” after some of the things we have seen prior to this. What makes the horror of this so effective is the idea that this could literally be happening on our doorsteps, aided by the quiet North Country setting instead of the usual busy suburban London.

Wheatley asks a lot from his actors with the challenging roles he creates but is duly rewarded by the committed performances from his cast. Neil Maskell is chillingly convincing a Jay, from depicting his mood swings to his gradual mental decline punctuated with energetic violent outbursts, while Wheatley regular Michael Smiley as Gal once again plays the Irish guy, this time with a dangerous edge to him. Bridging both personalities is Shel, touchingly essayed with grace and fire by MyAnna Buring.

As with many directors, a look back at their earlier works shows the portent of things to come in their later and more successful outings. In Wheatley’s case one can see kernels of the black comedy of Sightseers and the surreal disturbance of A Field In England in this film. While both of those films have received universal praise, Kill List  has proved polarising and it’s not difficult to see why, the cause almost certainly being the sharp change in direction in the final act.

It is fair to say that Ben Wheatley is one of the bolder and uniquely creative British directors of the moment and while Kill List suffers from a few bumps in the road, it is a fine example of a nascent talent establishing himself while still finding his voice.

4 thoughts on “Kill List

  1. The BBFC only picks on anime. I hear the upcoming Battle Girls has 8 seconds cut from the UK release.


    1. Well no, it picks on live action films too! Ichi the Killer had a scene cut and even Star Wars Episode II was cut for DVD release as well!

      Yes, Battle Girls was cut for a scene where the underage protagonist was shown naked in a sexualised manner. It means nothing to the plot so it’s no biggie unless you’re a paedo of course…


  2. Eight seconds seems like a substantial cut. If it’s a punchline to a fan service gag the scene won’t make any sense with the footage removed.

    Whether a drawing should be classed as underage is a bit of a grey area, but I won’t won’t argue on that. Whether I think the content is palatable or not, what I don’t like is a third party dictating what is acceptable for me to watch. Just give it an appropriate age rating and let the viewer decide if it’s something they want to see.

    The BBFC is just hurting British companies. They charge a lot of money for age ratings which discourages distributors from releasing niche titles that won’t sell many copies. Poor MVM. Anyone in the know will just watch the series via other means and if they enjoy it will import the uncut DVDs from the US/Australia.


    1. Well, you’re preaching to the choir here. I agree with you, the BBFC have made some very questionable cuts some of which are laughable in today’s climate where the uncut original is just a mouse click away.

      As you say the fact it is animated is a grey area and is what constitutes “sexualisation”. We know that the Japanese can be sadly lecherous in this area and we Brits certainly don’t condone this, but we respect the fact their culture’s attitude is different to ours, whether we agree with it our not.

      I think the BBFC underestimates anime fans and fails to recognise that we know what we are getting ourselves into when we watch a show or film – whether we like it or not. And when the excuse is that it *might* incite sexual arousal that is quite the generalisation and an offensive knee jerk and unfounded one at that.

      in this instance we don’t even know what was cut. I have been reading some forums and most people are struggling to recall anything so bad that it needed cutting. There are a couple of ideas but nothing concrete springs to mind which makes one wonder if this just a personal overreaction by some easily jobsworth. I’ll know soon enough when I watch the check discs.

      I agree that 8 seconds sounds a lot but if it really has no bearing on the overall plot and is a throwaway scene with needless nudity of a minor then I think we can live without it; it’s not like the cut to Paranoia Agent which was to an integral part of the storyline and again made arbitrarily based on a panicked whim rather than facts or common sense.

      Don’t get me wrong: I find this kind of censorship abhorrent and puritanical but I also think people screaming about having to import instead because of what could be an inconsequential cut are overreacting just as much as BBFC are in my opinion.

      It’s a thorny issue as you say since I am sure most (if not all) UK anime fans don’t condone or relish in the sexualisation of minors even if the context is jocular and often harmless. It is shame that fans lose out because of this clash of and lack of understanding of differing cultures.


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