14th Aug2020

Rewind: ‘Kill List’ Review

by Chris Thomas

In the first of a new series of Rewind reviews looking back at the career of writer/director Ben Wheatley, Chris takes a look at his 2011 hit, Kill List.

Stars: Neil Maskell, Michael Smiley, MyAnna Buring, Harry Simpson, Emma Fryer, Struan Rodger | Written by Ben Wheatley, Amy Jump | Directed by Ben Wheatley

My initial terror when re-watching Kill List was that I realised it had been almost 10 years since I had seen it in a Cineworld in South West London..!

Kill List starts as a bit of realist, family drama, with our ex-soldier and “hero” Jay (Neil Maskell) out of work. He enjoys playing sword fighting with his beloved son but is under great pressure to get back to work from his wife as their savings dwindle. seemingly haunted by a mission in Kiev, Jay loves his family but is quite possibly suffering from PTSD. His wife then arranges a little dinner party, with Jay’s old colleague Gal (Michael Smiley), who can offer him a job with him working as a hitman.

Tensions at the dinner party boil over, watching 4 people go through such awkward social tension is extremely difficult to watch, as it is superbly acted and brilliantly scripted. At some point Gal’s girlfriend pops into the bathroom and scratches a sinister looking symbol on to the back of the mirror, before replacing it, and takes some bloody toilet tissue, from where Jay cut himself shaving. The couples then proceed to let their hair down and get drunk together.

Shortly after Jay and Gal go and meet their new client, who gives them a list of three people he wants executed. When they reach an agreement, the client unexpectedly cuts Jay’s hand, then his own, effectively signing the contract in blood.

Gal might be a killer, but he is warm, friendly, and relaxed. In contrast to Jay’s serious and damaged personality. Smiley is a long-time collaborator with film makers Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump who can do both charming, warm, and friendly but also sinister and faux warm and friendly to perfection. Here, he is the only friend Jay has, and is the well centred, affable contrast to Jay’s increasingly nasty violence (shouting at Christians for having a singalong at a hotel breakfast is very much the tip of the iceberg). Despite being side by side for most of the film, Jay goes on a journey that Gal will not be following him on.

I would recommend that you watch this film with no more than this information, and no idea what is to follow… What does is a mystery thriller that slowly, morphs into lyrical folk horror. Kill List has often been compared to The Wickerman and I can see where the comparisons come from, but while they share some very obvious similarities, the story and main theme of both films remain very different (without giving spoiler on either film). I also want to give a nod to the subtle symbolism that Kill List is chock full of, the half and full moons are some of the more obvious examples but it all fits together to make a swiss watch of a film. By which I mean, beautifully crafted parts that all serve a role, all fitting together to serve a singular purpose.

Jay and Gal roam free, hunting down the different people on the list but there’s always a sense of claustrophobia, a sense that they cannot escape a terrible fate that is never far from them. The skill of Wheatley and co-writer Amy Jump is such they could impart the texture of horror onto an episode of Peppa Pig if they so choose to.

On first viewing, I remember thinking that the end is ambiguous, but watching it again it seems far less so. I always thought the end to my favourite film of all time (John Carpenter’s The Thing) was meant to be ambiguous, only a few years ago I read an interview with Carpenter that explained I am basically an idiot for misreading the implication of the scene.

Kill List is a modern film that once upon a time would have been a VHS cult classic. It deserves to be rediscovered by a much wider audience.


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