Kill List neither asks for, nor gives, any quarter. Unsympathetic and uncompromising, this is modern Britain reflected through a particularly twisted mirror. Kill List expertly delivers the drudgery of working life, the stress of relationships, the troubles and joys of parenthood, the strange and exotic societies that exist on and above the fringes of normality and most importantly, the tawdry, unpleasant things some of us will do for money. Pleasingly, for a film set in and around Sheffield, there isn’t even a hint of “grim up north” on display.
The tale of hitmen lured out to do “one last job” is giving a thorough reworking here as our protagonists, Jay and Gal need to return to work in order to support families and put food in their own mouths. Gal is given a list of “easy targets” and “bad men” for them to work through. They rapidly discover that the list is both bigger than they thought and impossible to quit. The film is presented as a series of titled hits joined by scenes of domestic arguments, workaday boredom, lazy banter and a lot of time in travelodges. The life of a hitman has rarely been portrayed as less glamorous.
Ben Wheatley directs his sophomore effort (after the downright filthy and extremely low budget Down Terrace) from a story by himself and Amy Jump. He takes dull, surburban, identikit Sheffield as his starting point to show modern life trudging along and then gradually introduces the surrounding countryside to unsettling effect. Showing man reverting to a more primal environment dovetails nicely with what must be one of the oldest professions; Assassination. Wheatley and Jump gradually weave in the holy trinity of evil; sex, power and especially money, considered here as less a condition of the times and more as the way it always has and always will be. The violence is necessary for the most part. Whether vengeful or punitive, it is always horrific.
When the film turns comic, it’s as dark and bitter as molasses and disappears in the blink of an eye. Kill List is funny in the same way a disaster followed by a disaster followed by a disaster takes on a hue of hysteria that can be laughed at only from the very epicentre of the catastrophe. Christians are intimidated, dinner parties collapse into screaming arguments and a very dubious meal is enjoyed. All in the name of our (very skewed) supposed sense of enjoyment. This kind of honesty in film making, the observations of absurdity that humans suffer every day is to be applauded and treasured, rare as it is.
The cameraderie and complex relationship that Jay and Gal display must have taken a while to acheive (or Wheatley was very, very lucky), they bounce off each other, piss each other off, fight then drink together to apologize. Their’s is not an easy job, but they are aware of the beds they have made.
There is a certain Joseph Conrad feel to Jay and Neil Maskell’s fine work portraying him. The deeper and more embroiled Jay becomes in the murders and his own part in them the further down the river his mind travels. Unravelling into psychosis that manifests as a greater enthusiasm in his killings. As the violence escalates so too does Jay’s revulsion at his actions and worse, the joy he takes from a false sense of justice and retribution. Jay visualises himself internally as an avenging angel, a modern day vigilante, meting out justice to the people who slip through the cracks. Realising he is just a grubby killer doing his best to support his family preys on his mind only rarely which is perhaps the most frightening aspect of him. A very real sense of “the guy next door” hangs over Jay, he’s an everyman who just happens to be willing to torture and kill. Kill List is clear in the belief that the only thing required to perform Jay and Gal’s horrific job is, in point, a willingness to do it in the first place. Neither seems particularly skilled with their weapons or their methods. Just knowing that they themselves are amoral enough seems to suffice. We are reminded again and again that we are a long way from Hollywood.
Gal, played by Michael Smiley, is less conflicted. A sad sack, heavy drinking Irishman who seems to have fallen into the job of hitman by accident. Maybe the hours suit him. He seems content to drift through life hedonistically and the killing is just an extension of this. Michael Smiley’s face is torn and ravaged by living anyway and despite a hint of worry behind his eyes, he plays Gal pretty much straight, no hidden depths or well of rage lie within, just the knowledge that the niche he has found himself in is simultaneously ideal, unfortunate and that it will eventually swallow him.
By the time Jay and Gal realise just what they are involved with it is far too late, neither man is ready for the toll the list will take on their lives and their families but they are given no choice. A messy and unpleasant conclusion follows.
Kill List is perhaps the most interesting piece of British Horror in years. A single film that will hopefully re-ignite the genre in these isles. Wheatley is a director for our time. A man making films that show us what our society has become. After this Hollywood will surely come calling. Hopefully Wheatley will be able to dictate the terms…..
All that and we didn’t even mention The Wicker Man…..