The list is simple. It’s a collection of moribund Britfilm genres, to be taken out back and savaged with a lump hammer. Begone dull, worthy kitchen sink dramas; take that, geezer gangster flicks. Ben Wheatley realises that for too long British audiences have sat in cosy complacency…
So here’s a movie where, in his words, “they’d have to think about what they were watching rather than let it just wash over them”.
In a banner year for British film, with impressive returns for Steve McQueen and Lynne Ramsay, and startling debuts from Paddy Considine, Richard Ayoade and Joe Cornish, Wheatley’s second feature might trump them all.
Not bad for a film that, like his debut, Down Terrace, trusts to a sharp blend of shabby, darkly humorous realism and curveball genre twists over mainstream appeal.
Kill List begins as a nouveau riche satire about Essex geezer Jay (Neil Maskell) and his glamorous Swedish wife Shel (MyAnna Buring). Yet what its director laughingly refers to as a “Mike Leigh film about the manners of the dinner table”, with its brittle arguments about jacuzzi repairs and shopping bills, soon morphs into stranger shapes: first a violent contract-killer thriller, and then something even more horrific.
Although the element of surprise is the film’s greatest asset, Wheatley is scrupulously honest about where he’s going. We begin with a strange, pagan symbol being carved into the screen – which is later repeated when a character carves it into the back of a mirror.
In an entertaining commentary, Wheatley’s co-writer and wife Amy Jump admits she always hated the opening, but her hubby’s instinct is spot-on. It suggests something surreal and uncanny, all the more so because of how it jars with the opening act’s deadpan drunken repartee and blazing shaky-cam rows.
Gradually, we realise that Jay’s faltering wealth is founded on a career as a gun-for-hire, which fell apart after an unexplained incident in Kiev. The kill list, brought to Jay by long-time shooting partner Gal (Michael Smiley), is his shot at sorting out his life, but it goes without saying that things don’t go according to plan.
This isn’t, say, Taken, where an emasculated hardman resurrects old skills en route towards redemption. Wheatley, as he puts it, prefers “poking at the idea that hitmen are like folk heroes”. As gamely played by Maskell, Jay is half psycho, half sad-sack. He’d be happy to remain a self-medicated wreck recounting past glories as bedside stories for his son, but given another chance, it’s not long before he’s going “off-list” in more ways than one.
One minute, Maskell is delivering a virtuoso comedic tirade against a bunch of God-botherers; the next, Jay’s getting busy with his hammer. What’s remarkable is how Wheatley’s editing is so tuned into Jay’s scrambled mindset, constantly mixing things up to catch us off-guard.Sometimes scene transitions fade to black, others are marked by abrupt, elliptical edits – in one shocking moment, there’s no cut at all where normally we’d expect one.
Then, when the killings start, the victims’ job titles suddenly flash up as captions despite no earlier hint of an episodic structure. In less talented hands, this randomness would resemble a wannabe dining on a smorgasbord of Kubrick, Tarantino and Noé. Here, it’s another tactic to screw with our preconceptions.
State of the nation
All the while, the puzzle of that opening symbol remains, the madness growing...until it explodes in a breathless final act of narrative suicide. As Wheatley recognises, the ending is the film’s “Marmite moment,” but insists, “it makes perfect sense to me”. As scripted, there was far more rationale for what happens, with one abandoned concept seeing Jay and Gal’s employers intent on taking out a rival faction.
But why, then, do Jay’s victims thank him when he kills them? It was Jump who, aptly, made that leap into something more inexplicable and disquieting, and Wheatley followed suit, reckoning “the exposition itself is just deathly dull”. Like the references to Kiev, or the shocking video that enrages Jay but whose images we never see, we’re required to fill in the blanks.
On one level, the denouement is very silly – but what Wheatley’s critics missed is that the Gothic insanity is the inevitable destination for Jay’s Godless ways. Noticeably, the names on the list (priest, librarian, M.P.) are traditional emblems of faith, knowledge and order, all now fallen from grace.
In their place, Wheatley’s “hero” is a metaphor for the moral vacuum of 21st-Century Britain, his life a perfect storm of hypocritical tabloid self-righteousness, irresponsible material greed and a bloodlust forged in the deserts of Iraq.
With nothing certain, no wonder the furies are multiplying. Wheatley’s own fury seems driven towards the denunciation of glib, glossy homegrown cinema. Towards the film’s harrowing end, we see an audience applauding the action with exactly the kind of smattered politeness usually reserved for a prestige Britpic like The King’s Speech.
The circumstances couldn’t be more different; despite their alphabetical adjacency, you won’t find many households with Kill List sitting alongside this year’s Oscar-hog on their DVD shelves. But for those who tick this off their viewing list, the echo of that applause – ironic, mocking and very sinister – is Wheatley’s final blow to the status quo.