Kill List, the latest film from Ben Wheatley, director of Down Terrace, has a lot going for it. Down Terrace was a bit of a revelation. Shot on a shoe-string budget in collaboration with writer/actor Robin Hill and his father Robert Hill, Terrace told the story of a very small-time, blue collar criminal family and the way their lifestyle turned inward and preyed upon them, particularly on their somewhat emotionally-imbalanced son. In addition to co-writing Terrace and playing the role of the son, Robin Hill also edited the picture. Kill List finds both Hill and his father in very minor acting roles, with Hill again on editing duties.
What both films have in common is a very naturalistic, low-budget approach. This time around there’s a bit more money, enough that they can shoot in several locations and afford lots of extras when required. But Kill List starts out just as small, at a dinner party thrown by Jay and his wife Shel for Jay’s best friend Gal and a date. Both Jay and Shel are ex-military, but they’re still relatively young and are in the middle of playing house and raising a son together. However, Jay’s been out of work for 8 months and the family is suffering as a result, both financially and in the way his inertia is wearing on the marriage. Gal sees the dinner as an opportunity to make a bid for Jay to take a much-needed job with him, and after plenty of wine, conversation, and emotional explosions, Gal makes his case over beers in the garage. All of the actors, from Neil Maskell as Jay to MyAnna Buring as Shel to Michael Smiley as Gal (also back from Down Terrace) play their parts beautifully. There’s plenty of emotional complexity, but everything is deeply anchored in naturalism and subtlety. These feel like real people struggling with real-life problems, and up to this point this could easily be a naturalistic drama about a working class couple trying to make ends meet and deal with what’s likely a certain amount of post-traumatic stress disorder from the conflict in Iraq. But then we learn that Gal and Jay are hit men, and that the job in question is a hit list. Not too long, three names– something that should put some money in their pocket and help dig Jay out of his domestic hole, but still be fairly easy compared to the last job in Kiev where some superb fuck-up resulted in hastening Jay’s current downward spiral. And then, in an even weirder moment, there’s a moment in the bathroom with the theft of some bloodied shaving tissues and the carving of a symbol on the back of Jay’s bathroom mirror.
From there the film takes off on its second act, following Jay and Gal meeting their new clients and proceeding with the kill list. To say more would be a discredit to the film, but I also feel that I can’t properly review it without going into some heavy spoilers. So if you feel you have an interest in the film, blessings to you– go enjoy it and come back afterwards. If you don’t care about spoilers or you’ve already seen Kill List and want more information about the plot or to have a discussion about it, what it all means, and why I still have some small problems with it, read on after the score.
I will say that Kill List derives much of its power from how natural that first act plays, and how well it anchors the characters and their relationships. It brings us emotionally much closer to the characters than your average blue-collar gangster movie, and we’re invested in these guys as they go about their job. They’re extremely damaged and brutal, but we still see their humanity and have empathy for them. Also kudos to the way Wheatley plays with all of the genre-bending; keeping everything close to the vest helps give the film both a sense of mystery and urgency. However, I think at times he plays things too close to the vest, and I’ll get to that in the heavy spoilers section.
So for those of you who haven’t seen the film and are simply intent on spoiling the film for yourselves, the final act of the film, as Gal and Jay have reached the last target on the list, finds them in the woods late at night watching a nearby mansion and doing a little reconnaissance work. They nod off briefly, and wake up to find a large group of half-naked and hooded figures wandering through the forest in procession by torchlight. Gal and Jay get a bit closer, and watch as they hang a young woman– either a hostage or one of their own, we’re not sure. Gal and Jay open fire and take down as many of the cult members as they can, including one who opens his arms to their bullets, which seems to mark him as the intended target from the kill list. It’s a reaction very similar to the two previous names, but more on that in a moment. A chase through some tunnels ensues, with Gal brutally eviscerated. Jay shoots him through the head in a mercy killing, and Gal thanks him in a moment that echoes the victims from the list. Jay escapes and makes it back to the safehouse where he’s stashed his family. But the cult finds them and attacks. Jay circles the perimeter to defend it, and is knocked out and taken hostage. Shel picks off several of the cult members as they invade the house, but eventually is captured as well. When Jay wakes up, he’s been stripped mostly naked and has a mask placed over his face and a knife tied to his hand. He’s encouraged to fight a hunchback, which a title card reveals as the new third target. After killing the hunchback, he rips off a sheet that had been covering it, revealing it to be his dying wife with their son strapped to her back– a son he has just savagely stabbed to death thinking while attacking the hunchback’s back. The cult members take off their hoods and masks and applaud.
A lot of audiences love the film simply for the genre twist from a straight crime film to something resembling The Wicker Man by way of A Serbian Film. I’ve seen people admit to not even understanding the film, but loving it for the style and flash alone. It is done with a lot of visceral panache, and that’s certainly a huge credit to Wheatley. He gets more unnerving, paranoid, anxious energy out of the roller coaster than anything I’ve seen in quite some time. I also feel that I have a very good understanding of the film, so much so that I saw a good deal of the ending coming. But my problem ultimately, is that the flashy sleight-of-hand in regards to the genre and plot twists still doesn’t result in a tightly-enough crafted film for it to truly be considered great. There are simply too many holes and questions left unanswered. If you’re the sort of person who doesn’t feel that a film has to completely make sense, or doesn’t mind gaping plot holes and unanswered questions, then more power to you and you will likely find a lot to love here.
Starting from the beginning, Fiona is obviously marking Jay when she cuts the mark into the back of his mirror. The symbol itself, which looks much like the symbol for anarchy and definitely suggests the letter “A,” also seems to mark Jay as the potential anti-Christ. This is an interpretation supported by later scenes in the film when Jay shows himself to be completely godless, without spirituality, and anti-religion. In a quieter moment, his son asks him about heaven, and Jay tells him he’ll have to ask his uncle Gal about things like that. Gal, for all of his failings and brutality, still does believe in God. There’s a scene in a hotel with a group of hippie born-agains. One of them whips out a guitar and starts singing, and Jay becomes so unhinged that he goes over to the table, grabs the guitar away, and threatens the man’s life. Jay storms off, and Gal apologizes for his friend and even asks the group to pray for them. The very notion and presence of religion is something that incenses Jay.
The theft of the bloodied shaving tissues is no doubt so that Fiona, one of the cult, can get some blood from Jay to begin working the cult’s magic spells. Fiona is also likely behind both the dead rabbit that Jay finds in the yard, attributing it to their cat, and later the cat itself, both sacrifices made to strengthen their hold over him and his evolution into the anti-Christ. Jay even goes so far as to unwittingly cook up the skinned rabbit and eat it, likely strengthening the power of the magic and his new growing archetype. The client who hires them for the three-person kill list, who ends up being one of the leaders of the cult, slices Jay’s palm with a knife to seal the deal in blood and sign a document. More blood, more marking, and the document may pertain to more than simply the hired job. As for the names on the list themselves, they all recognize Jay and thank him as he’s killing them, some quite horribly and brutally. Their reaction to him evokes adoration and even worship. Jay becomes so unstable and brutal by the second name on the list, that after killing him, he goes off-list and murders several other people part of the same pornography ring. In fact, he’s so unhinged that Gal initially refuses to work with him. Jay goes for some counseling, but the regular therapist isn’t there, and the doctor who is gives Jay a line about how there isn’t a past or future, there is only the here and now. Jay’s a bit unnerved about the missing therapist, and this new one, obviously a plant from the cult, is feeding him information very much in keeping with satanic cults who worship nature and reject gods and spirituality– it’s all about the here and now, the moment. There is no hope, no grief, no regret, no love– these are all feelings predicated on anticipation of a future or the soul-searching of past actions. And self-examination and spiritual self-awareness are not desirable for their mind-think; all that is desired is brutal action without emotions tied to consequences. Jay’s final murdering of his family frees him of these shackles of love, emotion, and feeling and delivers him into a place of total isolation, lovelessness, and godlessness befitting of a proper anti-Christ.
There’s a nice moment of foreshadowing early on when Jay is playing in his backyard with his wife and son with some plastic swords that predicts the hunchback scene. That didn’t clue me in to the ending of the film. But once the cult is walking through the woods with torches and the woman hangs herself, it becomes quickly obvious where all of this is going. There’s been too much of an internal struggle going on with Jay to be ignored. And like Brad Pitt’s character in Seven, we’ve witnessed his anger and the way he’s rejected God and continues to rail against humanity and even himself. It’s begun with the post-traumatic stress disorder, and continued with his acceptance of his need to kill in order to provide for his family. Just like the world’s biggest optimist is a prime candidate to become the world’s biggest pessimist because the world will never be able to live up to his expectations, Jay has been caught up with carrying the burdens of the world, and it’s torn him down to the point that his passionate hate comes from the very core of his soul. Gal, on the other hand, is somehow able to compartmentalize. He kills people for a living, maintains some level of his Christianity, and feels bad about what he does, but not enough for it to rip his soul to shreds. Jay has an extremely visceral and emotional reaction to the pornography he sees at the warehouse of the second victim on their kill list, The Librarian. It’s part of what derails him and sends him into the off-list murder spree. And as an audience, we know that something having that strong of an effect on a man who kills for a living has to be the most horrible, detestable, execrable thing that could be imagined. In another spooky moment, a tertiary cult character says something to Jay about his “reconstruction,” and that’s obviously what this is– the breaking down of certain elements from his personality, those remaining vestiges of his humanity, and the building up of this new beast. And because Jay is completely without God, he’s vulnerable to the cult and their manipulations. It’s possible that Gal, as horrible a human being as he is, was the early mark for Fiona. But that when she saw he still clung to the remnants of his Irish Catholicism, and she met the more appropriate Jay and saw the way he raged at the dinner party, he became a much more suitable target.
My problem with the film is that so much of it seems designed for the visceral shocks and the thrill ride of it. I don’t think all audiences will pick up on what I’ve outlined above, and it does give a fairly good understanding of a lot of what is happening behind the curtain of the textual narrative. But the film is also a very internal study of the character of Jay. And even though the cult may mark him for transformation, and even though he may reject God after his military tour and his struggle providing for his family, we still see him struggling to be a good man. His reaction to the pornography proves that at that moment, he still has some good in him. And I think that for a film that is so intimate with its characters, there does need to be more explanation and justification on the part of the cult. At one point, before going in to accept the job, Gal comments that neither of them has ever met these new clients before. Yet when Gal and Jay try to quit after killing the second name on their list, the client tells him that if they quit he’ll kill them and their families, and makes a comment inferring that they’ve worked for him for years. It doesn’t seem to be have a supernatural resonance as when Jack Nicholson is told “You’ve always been the caretaker” in The Shining, but it does raise some issues about the nature of the cult and why they’ve selected Jay. And more importantly, what about the job of the kill list itself? Why even bother with hiring him for a kill list in the first place, which is the bulk of the narrative of the film? Why not simply focus on him as a candidate for reconstruction? The kill list then seems to be less a necessity for the narrative than a sleight-of-hand marketing hook to capture audience interest, and this bait-and-switch undoes the very purpose of the film, all in the service of the punchline genre-bending twist from crime film to cult/horror.
A case could be made that the kill list is personal after all, that these members of the cult marked to be victims for sacrifice have been picked because their occupations will particularly unsettle Jay and aid in his transformation– The Priest cements Jay’s own rejection of religion, The Librarian torments him with his witnessing the most vile degradation and abuse of humanity, and The MP shadows his own personal history as a member of the military and the compromises he began making while fighting in the war. But this would indicate a careful selection process of Jay that begs even more questions about the cult and their purpose, much more than what we get, and it seems more likely that the kill list is simply a narrative construction in service of a certain mood and style and the shock ending. I’m not saying that the film completely falls apart– I’ve still given it a 7.5/10, which is a very respectable score. But I do believe that for it to rate higher, and for me to mark it as a great film and put it in a pantheon with some of the better puzzle box and mind-fuck movies of all time, it would have to find a way to present a little more narrative justification for some of the choices that are made beyond simply visceral shock factor. And if Wheatley is as good a filmmaker he seems to have the promise of being, he’d be able to do it in such a way that it remained subtle and didn’t reek of overt exposition. But there remains a problem with the balance between how vague and nebulous much of the justification for the central narrative is compared with the too-obvious and short-ended climax with The Hunchback. Kill List plays, in part, like a really long, meandering joke requiring deep investment and introspection, only to offer up a quick punchline that uses the long build-up simply to pivot off of it for a cheap laugh. Yet, that doesn’t compromise the fact that so much of it still is quite brilliant.