There’s a line of dialogue that falls around the beginning of the second act of Kill List that sums up the film in just ten words. As one hitman proclaims to another that “That don’t look like the house of a major villain” the tone for the picture is firmly set. All is not as it seems in the world being presented in Ben Wheatley’s divisive follow up to the wonderful Down Terrace.
The scene outlined above revolves around the two main protagonists of Kill List. Jay and Gal are old friends. They’ve quite literally fought through the wars together, before fortune and circumstance draws them towards working as guns for hire, working through the titular kill list; a documents containing the names of five targets, each one the eventual victim of the aforementioned guns being hired. And while this set up may sound familiar, by the films conclusion Kill List is well removed from what one might expect. Alas’ to say anything further on that subject would be unfair to both the film’s makers, and the films audience. And besides, such details will be discussed further down the line. Lets just say that things aren’t all as they seem, as our heroes discover as they work their way through the archetypical “one last job”.
Ben Wheatley’s sophomore effort, not unlike his magnificent debut Down Terrace, takes place in a world of alcohol and anti-depressants. Similarly to that first work, here Wheatley also presents a unique spin on an often tread path. Whereas the earlier work dealt with the unremarkable reality of gangster culture, Kill List sees the director take on the hit man film. As per Wheatley’s directorial trait this is a story ground in the real, yet one so ground in normality that anything threatening the status quo is automatically emphasised explicitly. Matter of fact dialogue such as “Let’s go kill this MP then”fills the audio track, and the film is carried along on an uncertain tension (another those familiar with the director will associate with his earlier work), the viewer left in a position whereby it feels like it could turn nasty any second. It feels unsafe, and uncertain, a tone which essentially sees the film ground in the tradition of the horror genre. That, for the most part, the nature of the dialogue contradicts this tone entirely only helps to encourage the off-kilter presentation.
Somewhat contrasting the horrors on display within the content of the frames, Kill List is a beautiful looking film, with Laurie Rose’s cinematography quite possibly the highlight of the piece. That Kill List is only Rose’s second film as a DoP is quite something. Combined with Robin Hill’s intriguing approach to editing, in which a reliance on long pauses of black maintains an eerie feel over proceedings dictates that from a visual perspective Kill List is a real success. As with pretty much every aspect of the production, Kill List takes the distinctive visual style honed on Down Terrace and develops them further, with the core roles of Rose, Hill and Wheatley reteaming for Kill List. An apocalyptic score accompanies the imagery, with television composer Jim Williams’ sparse but hugely effective arrangement guiding the audible side of the film past the aforementioned curveball of the dialogue.
Kill List’s aesthetics and narrative shift goes some way to redefining and re-placing (in a positioning perspective) the worn-out genre of Torture Porn. While not (according to Wheatley intentionally) produced as a commentary on the relationship between an audience and violent movies, it could certainly be interpreted as one, especially as the director forces the viewer in to facing up to their own imagination when it comes to a key plot detail. As the sense of dread grows, the viewer is placed in a position comparable to that of Michael Haneke’s most famous work, or, perhaps most notably, fellow British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me, in which that particular film’s director forced the viewer in to creating their own edit of the work by turning away from the screen as and when the individual felt necessary.
For the second time in 2011 a British filmmaker uses the post-Middle East militarial landscape in which to ground his protagonists. Ken Loach approached similar territory earlier this year with Route Irish, with both filmmakers clearly recognising something cinematically, or socially in the questionable nature of those left behind after the war. And while this isn’t intended to sound crass (but does) the question of “what do we do with our killers?” once the government has had their way with them is one that’s gone unanswered before, and will no doubt carry on to be done so in the wake of the events of the past 10 years.
A religious streak runs through the picture too, recalling everything from Rosemary’s Baby right through to the Paganistic ritual horror movies deemed by Mark Gatiss to be “British Folk Horror”. Indeed, while perhaps not the directors intention I found it difficult not to refer back to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods while taking in Kill List. As Jay and Gal make their way across the UK on their dysfunctional road trip, one an ever increasingly vengeful god, punishing bad people and suffering from what could easily be interpreted as as a form of stigmata, allusions towards Gaiman’s Shadow and Mr. Wednesday become all the more imaginable, with lines such as “It’s not a crusade” and “She thinks I’m a saint” encouraging said reading of the film. While the ultimate fate of our “God” is suitably divine, the route upon which the journey is taken is as brutal, befuddling and questionable as anything that stemmed from the pen of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.