Kill List (2011)

Review first appeared in Sight & Sound, September 2011

Review: Kill List opens with married couple Jay (Neil Maskell) and Shel (MyAnna Buring) having a loud argument while their seven-year-old son Sam (Harry Simpson) plays in the living room. Jay, a pill-popping Gulf War veteran, has been unemployed for eight months, complaining of various ailments which Shel insists are “all in [his] fucking head” – and the family finances are fast running out. “Wake up, Jay!” Shel shouts, trying to shake him from his insulated torpor, in a line that will recur several more times in different contexts. Shortly afterwards, their dinner guests arrive – Jay’s fellow veteran Gal (Michael Smiley) and Gal’s new girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer) – and the tensions between Jay and Shel explode into a vicious row. Yet there might be a way out of Jay’s predicament: despite unspecified problems the last time they worked together in Kiev, Gal (said by Fiona to be in commercial sales) invites Jay to join him once again on the road. Why, though, has Fiona secretly carved a strange sigil (also seen in animated form in the film’s first frames) into the back of her hosts’ bathroom mirror?

This extended opening sequence is marked by the same sort of fly-on-the-wall naturalism that also dominated director/co-writer Ben Wheatley’s debut feature Down Terrace (2009) – and anyone familiar with that film will be expecting this surface of banal domestic dysfunction to conceal a dark strain of ultraviolent criminality. In this case, Jay and Gal are a pair of hired hitmen, although this is only one of many surprises in a film that offers a disorienting blend of genres and blur of perspectives. Here the devil is in the details, and even the most offhand of comments or most casual-seeming of scenes (including the family’s horseplay in their garden) comes to resonate in unexpected ways with the later parts of a plot that twists its way from mundane realism to a horrific kind of surrealism. As Jay and Gal work through the list of three names provided by the Client (Struan Roger), Jay will emerge as an unstable, angry man in need of targets (Nazis, Christians, paedophiles, the rich, anyone) onto whom he can unleash all his pent-up aggression. Such a boorishly violent person hardly seems best placed to puzzle out the increasingly Lynchian enigmas that surround his assignment, leaving the viewer to the task of what the Client (who makes Jay sign his contract in blood) refers to as ‘reconstruction’.

All at once funny, thrilling, mysterious, shocking and tragic, Kill List entertains throughout while keeping viewers constantly on their toes and maintaining its narrative ambiguities to the very end. Whether (and this is something of a spoiler) we imagine that we have witnessed a Wicker Man-style conspiracy of entrapment or a deranged insider’s view on post-traumatic stress disorder, Wheatley gives us plenty to unpick about masculinity and madness. It’s a hit all right, earning its place on any film lover’s must-see list.

Synopsis: [spoilers] Gulf War veteran Jay’s chronic moodiness and unemployment have created frictions with his wife Shel that the couple struggles to conceal from seven-year-old son Sam. So Shel is delighted when, at a tense dinner party, fellow veteran Gal invites Jay to renew their partnership as professional hitmen – even as Gal’s girlfriend Fiona conceals a strange sigil behind the bathroom mirror. Made to sign a contract in blood by a mysterious Client, the pair sets off with a list of three targets. ‘The Priest’ smiles and thanks Jay just before he is shot dead. Investigating ‘the Librarian’, Jay and Gal discover a stash of violent child porn videos. With Gal distracted upstairs, the Librarian keeps expressing his gratitude for having met Jay even as Jay hammers him to death. Jay goes to the filmmakers’ address provided by the Librarian and kills two more men. Worried both by a dossier on himself and Jay found in the Librarian’s safe, and also by Jay’s increasingly psychotic violence, Gal says he wants to quit. The Client threatens to kill not only Jay and Gal but their families too if the contract is not completed. Shel and Sam go into hiding at a cottage.

Camping in the woodland grounds of ‘the M.P.’, Jay and Gal witness a woman being hanged in a nocturnal pagan ritual. Jay fires upon the masked celebrants and, after Gal is stabbed by a masked pursuer, puts his friend out of his misery. Knocked unconscious outside the cottage, Jay awakes surrounded by celebrants, and is made to have a knife fight with the monstrous, masked ‘Hunchback’. After Jay has repeatedly stabbed his assailant, everyone is unmasked, including the Client and Fiona – while the now-dead Hunchback is revealed to be Shel, with Sam tied to her back.

© Anton Bitel