I’m never going to die. I have come to grips with my immortality long ago, and I have accepted it. Due to this, I have developed a feeling of complete and total invincibility, and there are certain things that I have acknowledged that I am never going to feel. One of them, obviously, is a fear of death. Luckily there are films like Ben Wheatley’s KILL LIST that serve as a nice representation of the cold, creeping, grip of death to allow me to experience such feelings.
Jay and Gal are former soldiers who became hitmen after leaving the military, but now live seemingly normal lives in England. Gal comes to Jay during a dinner party at Jay’s house with an offer for new job, knowing that Jay hasn’t worked since a disastrous job in Kiev almost a year prior. Thanks to the urging of Jay’s wife, Shel, Jay accepts the job, in hopes that it will bring in some much-needed money for his family. The two men meet the client who gives them a list of three names that he wants snuffed out. The client also proceeds to cut Jay’s hand so that the “Kill List” contract is effectively signed in blood.
A large percentage of KILL LIST doesn’t unfold like a typical horror film. The first act of the film spends a large portion of its time with Jay and his family; comprised of his wife, and their young son. The movie begins as a drama focused on a couple that is seemingly unhappy in their relationship. They always seem to either be mumbly and sad – if you’re an ugly American like me you should watch this film with the closed captioning on – or really mean and sniping when they talk to each other. But deep down, there are still parts of Shel and Jay that love each other; a love that is represented in a slow-dance scene between the two of them that is all at once sad, pathetic, and kind of sweet.
As KILL LIST moves forward the plot turns into a more straightforward film that follows the actions of two hitmen. The two men make their way through the underbelly of wherever they are – Wikipedia says the filmed the movie in Sheffield, I’ll just go with that – taking out the men on the “Kill List”. Their first target is a priest, and the second target is a man who keeps a collection of seedy, snuff films in a dingy basement.
Oh man, the killing of the snuff film guy. Wooooooooo, is that kill an all-timer. It’s the kill that is the tops of the “Kill List” imo. After Jay and Gal track down the man in his apartment, Jay tortures and kills the man with a hammer. It is an absolutely ruthless scene, and Wheatley’s camera lingers on the gore. It’s also the first moment where the “horror” of KILL LIST jumps to the forefront; but that’s not to say that horror isn’t present throughout the rest of the film. There is a sense of unease surrounding the happenings in KILL LIST. The lighting of the film is slightly askew in certain scenes. The editing is choppy at times. The actors are shot from behind, as if the camera is an unseen force following them around. Ben Wheatley uses a variety of different techniques to set-up a general feeling of discomfort throughout the film. Even when KILL LIST might not seem like a horror film on its surface, the horror aspects of the film bleed from its edges.
Ben Wheatley is one of my favorite voices in filmmaking – more specifically genre filmmaking – today. He’s able to jump from dark comedy, with movies like SIGHTSEERS, to the unhinged trippyness of A FIELD IN ENGLAND, to social commentary in HIGH-RISE, to crime-drama in FREE FIRE (I think crime-drama. It’s the only film of his I haven’t seen). Wheatley can flow back and forth between different genres, and still maintain his voice; a voice that is blunt, funny, and unpredictable. I never know where Wheatley is going with his movies, and that’s exciting, but that can be quite challenging as well. Sometimes, even I don’t necessarily like what he’s saying, but that’s cool as well. For me, Wheatley is the filmmaker equivalent of “it’s not what you say, but how you say it”, I guess.
The third act of KILL LIST is where the more recognizable horror elements come into view. The climax of the film is in the same vein as a lot of rural British horror like THE WICKER MAN, WITCHFINDER GENERAL, and BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW, but KILL LIST still manages to be its own thing. The homages and influences are obvious, but they don’t overpower the film, and the climax feels like a natural progression of what comes before. It mixes horror and action, and has an ending that pulls the different plot threads together in a way that makes sense thematically for Jay. He can’t leave his past behind, and his inability to do so means that he will never be cut out for a normal family life.
Judging by a quick survey of random opinions I found on the internet, KILL LIST is a love it or hate it type of movie. I personally love it, but the movie is not an easy watch, and the story takes the characters to some really uncomfortable places. KILL LIST is an impressive genre mash-up and meditation on how a person’s past never really leaves them, and can and overtake every part of their life if they let it. KILL LIST is a special film, and one that doesn’t shy away from the horror lurking inside.