A Twisted Turn, by Matt Warren
You know that awkward, shameful feeling you get when your Mormon roommate walks in on you wearing ladies’ underwear and shoving an entire German chocolate cake into your mouth? That mortified feeling that seizes up your throat and sinks all the way down to your lower intestine? Well, that’s a little bit what the room felt like following my screening of Ben Wheatley’s gonzo new horror/crime mash-up Kill List, easily one of the most effectively brutal and queasy-making genre films of the last decade. We all just sat there, stunned, too uncomfortable to make eye contact with each other. It was like someone suddenly turned the fluorescents on during an orgy—instantaneously sobering. It was Friday night, and Kill List had already ruined everyone’s weekend, including mine. I fucking loved it.
As a professional film critic, I never bother to do any research on a film before seeing it, and I barely even glanced at the plot description of Kill List before committing to review it. And as such, my enjoyment of the film hinged in large part on my going in completely cold. So if you haven’t heard anything about this one yet and want to preserve the mystery, here’s your bailout point.
In fact, KL’s horror elements don’t even come into focus until over halfway through the film. If you would’ve asked me what kind of movie this was after the first twenty minutes, I would have guessed that it was your typical grim, Mike Leigh-ish UK domestic drama. I definitely didn’t anticipate any crime genre elements being introduced, and I sure as shit didn’t expect the entire enterprise to gradually morph into a terrifying descent into occult horror. Though, come to think of it, the poster was pretty fucking terrifying. I tried keeping a mental tally of how many unexpected turns the narrative took, but eventually lost count. Even if Kill List failed in every other way—which it doesn’t—it would at least get an “A” in subverting expectations, a must for any successful modern genre film.
Upon first glance, Jay (Neil Maskell) is seemingly average yob eking out a depressing working-class existence in the dreary English suburbs. Struggling to keep his marriage to Shel (MayAnna Buring) from falling apart, Jay frets about money and tries to reassure his beloved son Sam (Harry Simpson.) Both Jay and Shel have military backgrounds; Jay in British special ops, and Shel in whatever the IKEA version of special ops is in her native Sweden. One night, the troubled couple is joined for dinner by Jay’s old partner Gal (Michael Smiley) and Gal’s new girlfriend, the seemingly ditzy Fiona (Emma Fryer.) Over the course of the evening, Gal convinces the existentially adrift Jay to come back to work for “one last job.”
What kind of job? Well, if you’ve seen a movie in the last seventeen years, I’m sure you’d probably guess “hit man”—and you would be correct. But! That’s only where the story begins. Jay and Gal’s task of eliminating the unfortunate souls listed on their employer’s titular “kill list” proves easier said than done, and it quickly becomes apparent that even within the abhorrent context of murder-for-hire, there’s something seriously fishy going on. Who are their targets, exactly? And why, exactly, do they need to be eliminated? Is there some sort of conspiracy? Who, exactly, is in on it? And why, exactly, is this fucking guy so creepily eager to get his hand smashed apart with a claw hammer?
The answers to these questions are vague, and may frustrate some viewers. But the sophisticated genre fan will recognize Kill List’s chief assets as being those of mood and atmosphere, not narrative. I can’t think of a film infused with as much pure dread as KL. The bleakness sags across the film like a soggy Navajo blanket. Aided greatly by terrific cast—MVP award goes to Smiley—Wheatley’s largely-improvised script more than earns a place at grown-ups’ table with heavy-hitters like Rosemary’s Baby and the original Wicker Man. Shit-your-pants scary in all the right ways, Kill List is one of the best films of the year.