A domestic drama/hitman movie that's infinitely more disturbing than the sum of its parts, Kill List is a major breakthrough for writer/director Ben Wheatley, whose assured and painstaking handling of this difficult material makes for an unforgettable viewing experience. Starring Neil Maskell as a former soldier whose homicidal impulses his mysterious employers make haste to exploit, the film feels a little like three in one, but each disparate segment is joined to the others with understated but fully-rendered narrative drive that builds to a devastating climax. Although its subject matter and intensity might discourage mainstream success, Kill List should enjoy a healthy run on the independent circuit and on VOD while positioning Wheatley as a viable candidate for more commercial fare.
Maskell plays Jay, a doting but hen-pecked husband who frets over finances in between shouting matches with his wife Shel (MyAnna Buring). After a visit from longtime friend Gal (Michael Smiley), Jay agrees to join him as a hired gun, but Jay's moral outrage gets the better of him when he learns his targets traffic in pornography and snuff films. When Shel sees the toll the job exerts on Jay she encourages them to quit, but he and Gal soon discover that failing to complete their contract may have more dangerous repercussions than if they follow through.
There's already been some online chatter about how Kill List, which was the first film picked up for distribution through SXSW's SX Fantastic sidebar, makes a lot of hard turns between where it begins and ends. But details both little and big in Wheatley's script provide cues where the story is going, and everything from the visuals to the characterizations themselves feeds into its unwavering dramatic momentum. At the same time, while Wheatley cements its narrative transitions from the ordinary to the potentially occult, he declines to reveal a lot of the motivations or meanings of those underlying machinations, creating a greater sense of suspense by allowing the audience to fill in their own theories about what's really going on.
Most of the film's on-screen violence is more emotional than physical, although Wheatley depicts the torture and murder of one victim with enough graphic detail to disturb even the most desensitized viewer. But his interest is not in glorifying the characters' behavior, but forcing the audience to accept the terms of their own contract with the film - in this case, to confront them with the full capabilities of a character who is just as much a cold-blooded murderer and brutal assassin as a family man and best friend. Wheatley isn't merely interested in telling a story, but creating a dialogue with the audience, a back and forth that reflects upon both their viewing experience and what he's interested in showing them.
Ultimately, Wheatley's film makes for often difficult viewing, thanks not only to its thorough conception but to a technical execution which utilizes every aspect of the filmmaking process to produce intense and unsettling reactions; hyperbole aside, it's the scariest hit man movie I've ever seen. And unlike few similar films that audiences are likely to see, Kill List is not only startling to sit through, but sticks with you afterward - which is why for our sake as much as his, let's hope that the same can be said about Wheatley himself.
Distributor: IFC Films
Cast: Neil Maskell, MyAnna Buring, Harry Simpson, Michael S. Mley, Emma Fryer, Struan Rodger and Esme Foller
Director: Ben Wheatley
Screenwriter: Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump
Producers: Claire Jones and Andrew Starke
Running time: 90 min.
Release date: February 3 ltd.