Kill List is the best horror film I’ve seen in ages. For plain old nastiness it was up there with The Descent, the film that reiterated why I’m not interested in caving. But more than that I cannot say, because this really is a film that is worth seeing without knowing anything very much about it.
The set-up is simple to the point of being mundane; like Mike Leigh but with more shouting. From the opening moments we’re plunged headlong into a domestic scenario. Jay is married to Shel. He’s an ex-serviceman, she’s feisty in her own way and they have a young son, Sam. Jay hasn’t worked for months, and despite having a nice home, they certainly seem to have money worries. Jay’s best friend and comrade (Gal) comes round for dinner with his new girlfriend Fiona. Dinner doesn’t go well. So far, so nothing like what follows.
Suffice also to say that Nigel Floyd, Mark Kermode and the Sound on Sight radio/podcast team (who all know a thing or two about horror/genre films) have all raved about Kill List. Be warned: it is nasty, it is filled with a creeping sense of dread and threat, it has more than a couple of moments of gruesome violence. This is not for everyone, but it blew me away. The trailer is here, but if you think you might watch the film, I’d genuinely avoid both reviews and the trailer.
From here on, there be many, many spoilers…
The opening sequence really does feel like a shouty TV sitcom. Jay is evidently traumatised from some previous job (in Kiev?!) and his lack of work is causing money worries, although they don’t seem like they’re on the breadline. Gal comes for dinner, and has a job offer for Jay. It seems Shel is already aware of this, and more arguments escalate. All this feels tremendously naturalistic and real, the relationships are very ‘lived-in’: the tensions in Jay & Shel’s marriage feel real, the banter between Jay and Gal is genuine, the chemistry between all three characters is terrific.
Then we realise Jay and Gal have progressed from the military to private security work to contract killers. Behind the barbeque and piles of recycling in the garage, Jay has a stash of weapons. The job offer is a lucrative one, more killing. But of course, they’re good at that.
From here we leave Mike Leigh and progress into more familiar hit-man territory. Still the style is handheld, naturalistic. The relationships are well-drawn. Jay and Gal seem like professionals. It’s hard not to think of Pulp Fiction’s Jules and Vincent, but mainly in an ‘opposite’ way: the dialogue here is totally real, not mannered or stylised at all. These guys drive a family estate car, they stay in anonymous hotels. They have their list, and the first killing seems to go exactly to plan.
Except that the victim (The Priest) seems to smile at Jay just before he dies, and says “thankyou”. And suddenly we’re questioning everything that occurs. All the hints up to this point start to weigh even more heavily; Jay’s temper, his unexplained trauma in Kiev, what did Gal’s girlfriend do in the bathroom, what was that knife cut when they took the contract…?
And then it goes downhill rather quickly. The Librarian sequence is as intense and unpleasant as anything I’ve seen on screen. Jay starts going properly off the rails. He sees a film which the audience does not, and this seems to flick a switch in him. He wants to kill people, this is more than just a name on a list. The professionalism of the first hit is forgotten as he uses a hammer to its full potential. The victim seems to know more about what’s going on than Jay does. Meanwhile, Gal has discovered that their victim has a file of photos and documents about them, even from the mythical Kiev assignment. What is going on?
The film’s final third takes an astonishing ‘left-turn’ into the occult. Almost like a much more malign version of The Wicker Man, Jay and Gal find themselves in a very, very bad place. The final scenes are as bleak and soul-crushing as any story I can think of. There’s no light, no glimmer of hope or redemption for Jay at the end. He has been duped into destroying everything and everyone that could have offered him a normal life, he has unravelled his self and revealed a very dark heart, but he almost seems to have accepted this willingly, and possibly even enjoyed it.
Kill List is by no means perfect. It deliberately leaves plot twists unexplained, there are MacGuffins galore, and I know that many people will find that infuriating. Jay’s downfall is complete, but what part did Gal or Shel play in it? What was that symbol Fiona scratched on the back of the mirror all about? What was that scene with the weird doctor?! The Director’s commentary on the DVD gives precious little away, as though Ben Wheatley wants to keep the different possibilities open for interpretation.
I don’t believe it’s sloppy film-making, quite the reverse. Kill List is an exercise in tone and mood. The oppressive dread and threat that builds from the early moments is inescapable. We witness the destruction of a man who seems almost complicit in this process by the end. We are afraid of what might happen next, as there seem to be no limits to the violence, nastiness and horrors the film is prepared to explore. The sound design and colour palette only add to the bleakness. The first half of the film is domestic and claustrophobic, mostly set in small rooms, with close shooting angles. The second half is very dark, often shot at night or in gloomy places, and the soundtrack is always unsettling.
My version of WTF happens in Kill List is as follows…
Fiona is doing ‘HR’ for the cult. She/they have observed Jay and Gal, and identified Jay as their ‘candidate’ to be a new leader. She uses Gal to recruit Jay for the Kill List job. She also encourages him to speak to Shel to get her on board first, making Jay more likely to accept.
Gal is NOT aware of the cult’s motivations, at least not at first. The Priest murder is very ‘straightforward’ and professional. They scope him out, prepare the scene, it’s a clinical killing. When the priest says Thank You to Jay, noone understands.
The second killing is slightly more dodgy, in that Gal definitely seems to send Jay in first, where he discovers the film that seems to send him (further) over the edge. While Jay is torturing The Librarian, Gal doesn’t rush back downstairs and intervene, when he could easily have done so.
The MP‘s murder is the one that makes me think Gal had at least received some kind of instruction. Why on earth would they camp out in the woods overnight? The house is isolated, but not so much so they couldn’t have approached it differently. Only because they were in the woods did they get to see the cult’s moonlit procession and human sacrifice. When they were in the tunnels, Gal screams at the blocked up wall “that wasn’t supposed to be there”, which made me think he’d been told about this route and that he could escape.
But I don’t think he’s part of the cult. He expected he could get away. His panic in the tunnel is real, and his ‘thanks’ to Jay is for the mercy killing. Nor do I think Shel is part of the cult. Fiona continues to woo her to keep her onside even as Jay loses his mind. Her smile at the end is a reaction to how ****ed up everything has got.
The cult’s mission is to have Jay sever ties with everything that means anything to him, so he has to kill Gal, Shel and Sam. I’d thought that ‘Kiev’ was a job-gone-wrong where Jay lost it and went on a frenzy. That’s why the cult identified him as a potential leader, but they needed him to ‘rediscover’ that frenzy. His expression at the end is a rictus, almost like Jack Nicholson at the end of The Shining.
Is Kill List about the dehumanising effects of war, about trauma and PTSD, about the dark heart of a society that sends professionals to kill in the name of democracy? I’m not sure about that at all. I Reckon it’s a fantastically scary, often disturbing, completely dark and bleak horror film that has lived with me after the final scenes. I’m sure it would reward a second viewing.