Note: Kill List is a film that works wonderfully with its surprises left intact. The following review doesn’t delve too deeply into spoiler territory, but if you prefer to experience the film unspoiled, then we recommend you just go and see it.Just over a year ago, we here at Den of Geek were taken completely by surprise by Down Terrace, a low-budget, domestic crime drama directed, co-edited and co-written by Ben Wheatley.
With its understated charm, and disarming sense of humour, the film stood out among the dreary drama and urban grime that clog up the British film industry – although, unfortunately, it didn’t get half the attention it deserved. Thankfully, this is being rectified for Wheatley’s follow-up, the surreal thriller-horror mish-mash Kill List.
Almost echoing the home-bound setting of Down Terrace, Kill List begins by focusing on the life of a young couple, Jay (Neil Maskell) and Shel (MyAnna Buring), building up a nuanced representation of an erratic, at times volatile marriage through little snapshots.
While they may bicker and argue, Wheatley is smart enough to maintain a sense of humour in their lives, which in turn helps to make their blazing rows resound all the more strongly. This happens early on, at an evening meal with old friend Gal (Michael Smiley) and his girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer), where passive aggressive snipes about dividing up ribs and serving gravy in a Pyrex jug eventually boil over.
It almost lures you into a false sense of security, as the film takes the first of a number of sharp turns when we learn that Jay, an ex-serviceman, is not a salesman, but a contract killer. The revelation comes in the most inconspicuous, surprising way, with the men retiring to the garage post-meal, and there, surrounded by discarded exercise equipment, discussing a new job.
From here, the opening’s naturalistic setting becomes a distant memory, as Kill List goes into far more outlandish territory, incorporating big genre flourishes as the men pursue their vocation. After a meeting with an eerie, Lynchian client (Struan Rodger), who equals Robert Blake’s camera-wielding mystery man in Lost Highway in terms of creepiness, Gal and Jay wade through a mysterious, sordid underworld, where their targets – priests, MPs, librarians – lead them to quite a surreal, chilling endpoint.
As the narrative shifts, so does the film’s style, as the straight-shooting domesticity gives way to stylised, murky industrial estates, ominous skies streaked with rainbows, and pitch-black forests. The soundtrack starts to fill up with warped voices and moody drones, and the atmosphere becomes thick with foreboding. Soon, you begin to see why this is playing at London’s Frightfest festival: it’s a messed up, destabilising, take-no-prisoners horror flick.
It’s to Wheatley’s credit that, while splashing the screen with gore and slowly ramping up the tension, he still manages to pepper the film with moments that undercut the tone, such as Gal and Jay’s run-in with a bunch of hymn-happy Christians, or their on-the-job banter. Doing so keeps the film consistently entertaining, as the laughs and chills come in equal amount throughout.
It also shows that, while it is exciting to see the filmmaker challenge himself (and succeed) on such a small budget (£500,000), it is more impressive that he does so while retaining the mixture of well-observed, perfectly-voiced dialogue and compelling characterisation that marked his debut. Maskell, Buring, Fryer and Smiley make up a strong core cast, and they are all utterly believable, whether acting out odd mundanity or becoming embroiled in the increasingly confounding plot.
Some may be frustrated by the coyness of the narrative, which prefers to leave integral storytelling threads up to the viewer’s imagination, but that is all part of the fun, and, besides, you can’t deny Kill List’s ability to surprise, thrill and unnerve. Wheatley has shown before that he can make compelling, distinctive cinema on a budget, but here he shows that he has the creative ambition to take risks, and the talent to pull them off.