Kill List (2011)
Directed by Ben Wheatley
Produced by Claire Jones, Andy Starke
Written by Ben Wheatley, Amy Jump
Cinematography by Laurie Rose
DVD – interlibrary loan (1:35)
For its first fifteen or so minutes, Kill List looks and feels like a domestic drama. It soon turns into something else, then goes in another direction that catches you totally by surprise – or maybe not, if you’ve been paying close attention. During the final fifteen minutes of the film, nothing short of an earthquake is going to pull you away from the screen.
Set in the UK, Jay (Neil Maskell) is an ex-soldier having trouble finding a job, mainly because he isn’t really looking for one. Jay’s wife Shel (MyAnna Buring), is rather upset with Jay’s lack of effort in seeking employment.
She gets further annoyed when he comes back from a shopping spree having spent a large amount of money on mostly frivolous items including a plastic sword and shield set for himself and his seven-year-old son Sam (Harry Simpson). In one of the family’s quieter moments, Sam tells Jay that “Mom thinks you’re lazy.” Jay asks Sam if he feels that way too. “Yeah, a bit,” Sam admits.
Tensions erupt at a dinner party Jay and Shel are hosting for Jay’s friend Gal (Michael Smiley) and his current girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer). In a way that only best friends can do, Jay and Gal fight and not just verbally. When the dust settles, Gal asks Jay if he wants to do some hit-man jobs with him. We get the impression that Jay and Gal have either done this before or that their military backgrounds included (or prepared them for) such work. We do know that something happened in Kiev eight months previously that traumatized Jay. Yet he agrees to join Gal as a hit-man.
The hit-man change of direction isn’t really much of a twist and I don’t mind telling you about it. I’m not going to tell you about the other direction the film takes and I dare not even show you any pictures from it. But what happens in the hit man scenes is significant and I think prepares you for – as well as helps to explain – what happens in the film’s final fifteen minutes. I will get into some spoiler territory here, so if you want to stop reading until you’ve seen the film, it might be a good idea. I’m actually not going to spoil plot as much as I am character and theme.
Wikipedia calls Kill List a “British crime drama psychological horror film…” The guys at Pure Cinema Podcast call the film a cross between Get Carter and H.P. Lovecraft. I would amend that to a cross between Get Carter and The Wicker Man, but I can see the other comparison as well. What I really want to focus on for much of the rest of this review is the film’s theology and character.
One of the most interesting shots in the entire film is one that could easily be dismissed. As Gal and Jay get out of their car on their way to meet their new client (Struan Rodger), a rainbow appears above them. Visually this isn’t subtle at all, but thematically it presents an item of interest. Rainbows mean a lot of things these days, but in the Bible (specifically Genesis 9:8-17) the rainbow was given as a sign of God’s covenant not only with his people, but with “all flesh that is on the earth. (ESV)” What’s even more interesting is that the client performs a symbolic blood ritual with Jay at their first meeting. What proceeds from this point, at least theologically, is fascinating.
Just before the first hit, the priest Jay and Gal are hired to kill says “Thank you” to Jay. This strikes Jay (and the audience) as odd. Why would someone who’s about to be executed thank his executioner? This also happens at the next hit with the pornographer, who also thanks Jay and Gal. First of all, what ties these two guys together? But more interesting still, what was it in their lives that was so horrific that death would be a better situation than staying alive? Maybe they both knew they deserved to die. But maybe it’s more than that.
Jay is outraged at both the priest and the pornographer. He suspects that the priest has been molesting boys, but knows what the pornographer has been doing after witnessing some of his work. Watching one of the pornographer’s snuff films sends Jay into a frenzy, causing the death of the pornographer to be much more violent that it probably would’ve been without having seen the film. With the pornographer out of the way, Jay decides to track down the cameraman as well (although he’s not on the kill list). When Gal warns Jay that he’s going “off the list,” Jays responds by saying that doing so “doesn’t feel wrong. They’re bad people. They should suffer.”
Jay clearly has strong ideas of right and wrong, especially where children are concerned, which brings to mind the relationship he has with his son. Yet Jay gets highly offended at a group of Christians singing at a restaurant and confronts them. Gal seems to keep most of his own thoughts to himself, probably still shell-shocked due to Fiona’s abandoning him the night after the party. But in another interesting moment, Gal crosses himself before he and Jay go into the church to perform the hit on the priest. So elements of right and wrong are mixed with elements of traditional religious practices, or at least familiarity with those practices.
When Jay’s hand becomes infected, a symbolic representation that the third and final hit job has gone bad, he reluctantly follows Shel’s advice to see a doctor. But Jay’s regular doctor is no longer there. The new doctor treats Jay and gives him some cryptic advice: “The past is gone. The future is not yet here. There is only ever this moment.”
Soon after this, very strange things begin to happen and we figure it out way before Jay and Gal do: these guys are in deep trouble. We’re now not only trying to discover what’s going on (and weird things do start to pile up), we’re trying to understand Jay and Gal’s motivations (which might be different), Jay’s family issues, Gal’s issues with Fiona’s departure, and how the religious/theological angles fit together. It’s almost as if director Wheatley has given us so much to think about that we can’t focus clearly on what’s most important, although clearly staying alive is most important factor for Jay and Gal. This “staying focused” aspect of the film is brilliant, since (for the most part) we know only what the characters know and we’re as anxious and confused as they are.
One of the aspects I appreciate most about Kill List is the manner in which Wheatley disseminates information to his audience. He refuses to lead you by the hand, giving you only bits and pieces. As many frustrated filmgoers have mentioned, not everything is explained, but everything doesn’t need to be explained. I truly believe that Wheatley has given us everything we need. How you feel about the film and its ending will depend greatly on how you think about what you’ve seen. I’ll even go as far to say that your theological background will have a great effect on how you see the film, regardless of whether you’ve never set foot inside a church or are a seminary graduate. You will ask yourself a lot of questions afterward and it’s just possible that those questions will be as disturbing as the film itself. That, I believe, is what good horror films do. Kill List is violent, disturbing, compelling, suspenseful, and terrifying. Because it’s all of these things, it’s also very effective.
Photos: DVD Beaver, Creative Review, Film Misery