Kill List Review: Smash Hits

KILL LIST (18): On General Release Friday 2nd September

It’s always a pleasure when something has the capacity to surprise. At first glance, Kill List appears to be a naturalistic drama but slowly uncoils into a thriller which is one the tautest and most compelling films of the year.

Neil Maskell plays Jay, an unemployed ex-soldier who hasn’t worked for eight months and is under pressure to provide for his tough ex-Swedish army wife Shel (MyAnna Buring – now a young veteran of British horror) and his young son. Sam. When his best friend Gal (Michael Smiley) shows up to offer him some work as a contract killer, Jay reluctantly agrees but the job doesn’t turn out to be as simple as it first appears.

As the duo work their way through the list of targets, things get even stranger and more and more questions bob to the surface. Why do Jay’s targets thank him before their executions? Why does Jay’s doctor all but ignore an infection that’s clearly spreading over his arm? What connection does Gal’s new girlfriend have to all of this?

The writing is absolutely superb. Something Kill List does extremely well is sucker you into to thinking you know where it’s going. The first half of the movie is a very tight domestic drama with palpable tension in every scene – Jay’s hair-trigger temper simmers beneath the surface like an unexploded landmine; every conversation seems about a nanosecond away from bouts of verbal or physical violence.

At first glance, the “hit man on one last job” trope seems to be all Kill List is about and even if that were the case it’d be very effective. But after 40 minutes, it veers sharply off the beaten path and shatters all expectations. The film is more effective the less you know, so nothing more will be said here save the result is brutal, savage and deeply unsettling.

Director Ben Wheatley has complete mastery over mood – the use of a documentary style of filming creates a sense of claustrophobia which wouldn’t be possible with a more detached shooting style and Jim Williams’ score leaves you expecting bad things even in the most innocuous of scenes. As a result, Kill List leaves you feeling perpetually off balance, with a constant desire for answers.

There’s actually something more unnerving about Jay and Gal’s ordinariness. They’re a million miles away from the glossy professionalism of someone like Vincent in Michael Mann’s Collateral; these aren’t high-brow amoral intellectuals but real working men who happen to have a nasty job to do.

Maskell’s been playing hard men for years (usually as a supporting character) but grabs this leading role with both hands. Even when Kill List starts to go off at the deep end, Jay’s a believable and grounded character who reacts like a real person and he’s just as convincing as both a put-upon family man and stone-cold killer.

Equally brilliant is Michael Smiley as Gal whose chatty cheerfulness seems to indicate that he’s the more stable of the two but he’s quickly revealed to have his own set of off-kilter moral reference points which make him just as damaged as Jay. The dialogue is also superb – Jay and Gal’s banter is frequently laugh-out-loud funny, if the blackest of the black.

Kill List not only keeps the tension permanently turned up to 11 but it also strides impressively from kitchen- sink drama, to road movie, to thriller, to horror with barely a bump, while also finding room for reflection on masculinity, friendship and social commentary.

For 80 minutes Kill List is unarguably one of the tightest and most effective thrillers released in recent memory but the last 10 will probably generate some dissent. The conclusion, while suitably over the top (it couldn’t end any other way) may end up frustrating as it quickly raises too many unanswerable questions to be wholly satisfying. But that’s part of the point. Kill List will wriggle around in your head for days afterwards as you try to connect the dots.

It certainly bears a second viewing, where even the most throwaway of lines and actions will no doubt take on a prophetic significance. By turns, funny disturbing and deeply unsettling, Kill List is an intelligent, confident and cleverly made thriller and one of the films of the year.

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