REVIEW: "Kill List" Is Unexpected, Genre-Blending Fuel For Your Nightmares
With "Kill List," second-time director Ben Wheatley depends completely upon the prejudices of his audience to craft a genre-blending 70s throwback that wants nothing more than to take viewers totally unawares. To that end, it succeeds. The first few scenes come as a total surprise, depicting nothing more extraordinary than a couple going through a rough patch brought about by money troubles. Jay (Neil Maskell) hasn't worked in eight months, and the lack of funds is starting to take its toll on his wife and son. After things come to a head during a dinner with Jay's best friend Gal (Michael Smiley) and his new girlfriend, Jay finally caves. He and Gal take on a mysterious new contract and go to work.
It's difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when you realize the two of them are hit men. The shift from domestic drama to assassin flick is subtle enough to work completely. Yet even when the film settles into the titular series of killings that must surely be its main thrust, something still feels very off. To say more would ruin the surprise (if the marketing hasn't done that already) but suffice it to say there's still more at work behind the scenes, something that many bizarre little touches throughout the film hint at but never telegraph blatantly enough to make the third act swerve predictable.
The small cast works well together, and the fact that some dialogue-heavy scenes were improvised doesn't come as much of a surprise. The chemistry is clearly genuine, which is crucial when the movie goes to some very strange and brutal places. We need to feel attached to these people, even when they're doing grisly things, and fortunately we do. That said, this is most definitely not a picture for the faint of heart. That might be understating it, actually. If you have even a slight aversion to onscreen violence, take note that "Kill List" contains one scene in particular that will go down as one of the most realistically gruesome murders ever depicted. I took it for granted in the build-up that the camera was about to cut away. It didn't.
This is a divisive movie, to be sure, with some willing to strap themselves along for this twisted little journey while others are bound to feel that the narrative swerves are baffling and unearned. Nonetheless, that image at the halfway mark and the uncompromising final scene managed to elicit genuine shock from the theater, which in and of itself justifies a screening. This film has the most valuable of commodities a movie can possess in the era of effortless piracy: it's unexpected in a way that works wonders with an audience. If you can, give this one a chance. I was prepared for "Kill List" to be entirely forgettable. Days later, I still can't get it out of my head.