Emerging from the recent trend of independent horror in British cinema, Ben Wheatley’s small-scale gangster massacre Down Terrace made a bit of a splash last year. His latest, Kill List, ups the horror ante and finds a natural home in the AFI FEST’s Midnight Movies strand this week (festival runs November 3-10).
It starts off like a regular domestic drama of frustration and little shards of social awkwardness, as Jay and Shel argue over his eight months’ unemployment, then entertain another couple for dinner. Jay, it seems, might be something of a fantasist, and he’s certainly got a temper on him. But why does he have an assault rifle in the garage, and why does his chum’s googly-eyed girlfriend incise a sinister sigil in the back of their bathroom mirror?
The answer to the first comes quickly: Jay and Gal are Iraq veterans who’ve since made a living as hitmen, and the title refers to their latest targets, as provided by a sinister, posh “client” in an anonymous regional hotel. So off they go, undercover as salesman, to work their way through the contract. Things take an unpleasant turn when they discover their second victim’s hideout full of porn and horrific torture videos. We don’t see the video, but we see the result of Jay’s righteous anger, meted out with a hammer in impressively sickening fashion. He’s more unhinged than we thought. And as to the other, it’s signaled from the opening – that sigil appears onscreen before anything else – that things will take a turn for the Wicker Man.
The film’s main strength is the easy camaraderie between Jay and Gal. Michael Smiley as Gal has a terrifically long, wonky face (he was the hilarious bike courier in Spaced) and acts as an easy-going foil to Neil Maskell’s more conflicted Jay, sometimes boiling with rage, but at other times a convincingly regular dunderhead – the intensity of his stare and weakness of mouth conjure an unsettling mixture of Michael Fassbender and Ricky Gervais that helpfully prevents his character from settling into a psycho rut. They work the matey charm to such good effect, that Wheatley can get away with having them heave themselves from the couch with a weary “right, let’s go and kill this MP then”.
But for the rest, the film is full of suggestiveness, most bluntly through an excessive lathering of the score’s ominous rumbles and screeches over scenes that seem not to warrant it, save to make us feel uneasy. The ambiguity of the Iraq war, exploitation of the working class, and Gals’ (Irish) religion are all toyed with; and a brief interlude with a weird infection and a weird doctor hints that we may indeed be watching some fantasy world of Jay’s (we’re not, even if people do keep pointedly telling him to wake up). The first two victims give him a sincere “thank you”, and the second explicitly divines in him some secret identity, of which Jay is unaware. He’s vaguely an avenging angel, or crusader perhaps, but if there’s a specific, meaningful secret here, Wheatley and co-screenwriter/wife Amy Jump choose to let it drop. And poor old Shel gets short-changed, revealed at the start to be a Swedish ex-commando, but given only the briefest chance to show her stuff (and their kid exists only to make the ending more unpleasant. Shel too, for that matter).
Jay’s repeated unprofessionalism can be excused by his unhinged anger, and is bad enough to have created problems in the past (and his self-enforced unemployment), but opening fire on the torch-light pagan ritual is thoughtlessly suicidal, even in his deranged state. The participants are dressed in rather good twig masks, and all appropriate trappings are present, naked maidens included. But there is no real sense of ancient, deep-seated Wicker Man beliefs and menace here (or even the frightful unknown of something like Race with the Devil). Much of their threat is predicated on the fact that it is some secret, upper-class cabal. And as for all the suggestively impersonal talk over dinner about human resources, and the client’s later reference to “reconstruction”, it all remains too vague to matter, as we really have no idea what the baddies are up to beyond amusing themselves.
Wheatley and Jump create a serviceable texture and illusion of depth, but it is no more than that. The strands are woven deftly enough, that if one doesn’t mind or notice the gaps, then Kill List works as a perfectly decent horror-thrill with amiable leads. There’s a well-worn sequence in ancient, water-dripping underground passageways that Wheatley pulls off with a fine degree of terror; but ultimately this is exploitation fare pure and simple, as revealed by the thudding meaninglessness of the finale. The mechanics are sound enough, and it’s a horrible enough horror movie, but if one is inclined to watch with any degree of attention, or a desire to unpick the story’s suggestive secrets and metaphors, one will come away feeling robbed and a little insulted.
Information on the film and tickets, from AFI FEST: Kill List
Rent Kill List now at home via On Demand with Amazon and/or .