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.