Saturday, September 3, 2011

Review: Kill List

Worth checking twice?

Jay (Neil Maskell) is an English husband and father who hasn't worked in eight months. His wife Shel (MyAnna Buring) is stressing that their once comfortable lifestyle is in trouble - they can barely afford the shopping, let alone fix the jacuzzi! Cue marital strife. One night they invite Jay's old friend Gal (Michael Smiley) and his new girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer) over for a dinner party. Gal has a job offer for Jay, but Jay is cautious and politely refuses. However, tensions flare at the dinner table, as Jay storms off following a scathing comment from Shel about their financial situation. When everyone has calmed down, Jay reluctantly agrees to accept Gal's job offer.

Relatively innocuous, yes?

So here's my dilemma: how the hell do I review a film that I'd genuinely feel bad describing in anything more than the most basic detail? The above synopsis is a mere introduction to Kill List, and following the opening scenes of suburban strife Kill List becomes a very peculiar film indeed. As the title suggests, and a bit like Cold Fish earlier this year, these innocuous beginnings transform into something a bit more murderous. Magnificently murderous.

The film is from director Ben Wheatley, who co-writes with Amy Jump (with 'additional dialogue' by the cast). The film-makers have crafted a very strange beast: a film that is by turns riotously funny, deeply disturbing, horrifically violent, genuinely scary and - ultimately - almost camp. The unique tone and multitude of influences are handled with great care, though. Here we have a film that has some absolutely stunning setpieces (a dimly lit but uncomfortably claustrophobic action sequence in a tight sewer stands out) alongside some of contemporary cinema's finest one-liners (many of the film's most brutal moments are directly followed by belly laughs). There's nightmarish, almost Lynchian, surrealism, and regular lashings of ultraviolence (including a horrifying bit with a hammer). And it all works.

The cast certainly help. The middle-aged Maskell and Smiley (the latter gloriously embracing his Northern Irish accent) make for unlikely protagonists, but they both manage to swim along with the constantly shifting tone. They're as comfortable with intense action as they are with witty banter. Maskell and the Swedish Burring create a fascinating parody of modern married couple: rarely has a casual Skype call come across as so deeply disturbing. It's the casualness these individuals show towards their morally dubious activities that terrifies, even more so than the more explicit horror scenes. Other actors creepily pop in when needed - in an almost dialogue free appearance, Gareth Tunley says more with a sinister smile than words ever could. To Wheatley and Jump's endless credit, they keep the backstories of the characters ambiguous and vague, and they're far more interesting as a result.

It's a fantastically shot and edited film - the crew make great use out of light particularly, from fire to flashlights. Scenes often frantically cut, which merely adds to the uneasy tone. The soundtrack is the most explicitly 'horror' element of the movie, and definitely channeling Mr. Lynch. Kill List certainly looks and sounds the part, full of considered visual symbolism (occult and religious imagery appear frequently).

It's hard to criticise the opening hour of Kill List, but the final half hour is surely to divide audience. Here, the film very purposefully becomes something bordering on pantomime, and (likely purposefully) resembles a classic British film whose name it would be remiss of me to mention out of fear of spoiling anything. I'm pretty sure I like the further tonal shift (although I'll gladly admit it's a bit jarring), but it's likely to be a change too far for many audience members.

I hope I've kept things suitably ambiguous here, and that I haven't ruined any surprises. Because that's what Kill List is: surprising. It's brave, unique and very strange indeed. It fucks with conventions with an admirable nonchalance. Kill List could well be brilliant, but it's definitely something: fascinating, compelling, frightening. And something is better than nothing.


  1. great review. i had the same problem with writing mine. how the hell do you talk about the content without spoiling it? i'm glad you liked it.

    do you think a lot fo the enjoyment comes from being british? i've only found positive reviews from brits so far.

  2. You'd be best asking a British reviewer :) I did overhear someone make a comment as I left the cinema that Kill List really got into the somewhat grim side of Britain - dull suburbs and dank forests where people's most pressing motivation is to sort out a jacuzzi! Indeed, it's possibly one of the better abstract takes on the recession in many ways.

    But yeah, definitely a breath of fresh air for British cinema - probably their finest 'stab' at horror since the Descent. At first I feared it might have gone down the Danny Dyer (shudder) route of 'British lads' indulging in some ultraviolence. But I think this is a very distinctive attempt to satirize that turgid subgenre.

  3. I see. Irish. Not British. There's a difference. No offense caused? If i'd have realised I would've said POMS as I no longer really consider myself British.

    The overheard comment, it's perfect. If I were you I'd attribute it to yourself from now on!

  4. No offense taken! Just make sure you never say it at an Irish rock concert - there's no better way to lose an audience over here than proclaiming "it's great to be back in the UK!"