Ben Wheatley’s Kill List is a dark and often gruesome film that has echoes of one of the best British horror movies ever made, The Wicker Man.
In a brilliant experiment in genre-splicing, Kill List features a couple of hitmen as the film’s antagonists. Horror fans should perhaps let that sink in for a moment, because I can’t ever remember seeing a horror film that worked off such an interesting premise. Usually it’s all about helpless victims; here are a couple of characters we know are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves (physically, at least), so the threat has to come from a much more psychological place.
Jay (Neil Maskell) is a soldier turned contract killer who is clearly having difficulties coming to terms with the moral ambiguity required by his work. The film opens during a heightened domestic argument with his wife (Myanna Buring). She’s pissed off that he hasn’t worked in months, claiming to be suffering from a back injury, and meanwhile spending the little money that they have on booze. When his friend Gal (Michael Smiley) comes to visit, he asks Jay to join him on another job that promises to pay big money.
From the get-go, it’s clear that Wheatley wanted to populate his horror film with fully-realised, three dimensional characters. In this, he succeeds completely. Even before the horror genre elements begin to appear, it’s clear that Jay is suffering from a cluster of post-traumatic stressors. Maskell is excellent in a tricky performance, managing to balance insecurity and paranoia with bouts of extreme violence handed out in a calm and collected manner. Smiley (unrecognisable from the role I first saw him in, as that of the bicycle courier Tyres from ‘Spaced’) is similarly impressive as Gal, a man who at least at first seems at peace with his career choices. Buring is fantastic also, and props should go to Wheatley and co-screenwriter Amy Jump for not letting Shel be the typically ignorant and helpless wife of the main character.
Kill List is a rather grisly film. Whilst it’s not wall-to-wall gore, there are enough moments that certainly justify the (Australian) R rating. Be warned – this isn’t for those looking for some quick and easy horror thrills, but is rather something much more disturbing. Such eeriness is complemented by Jim Williams’ original score, which pops up to accompany the most mundane of moments with loud, discordant cues that elevate the tension that slowly builds throughout.
The film isn’t without its flaws. For those who have seen a lot of horror films, whilst the set up and characterisations might be original, the general narrative is something we’ve seen before. The film is also a little too horrid for its own good. There’s no charm on show here, as with the aforementioned Wicker Man. Full marks are to be awarded, however, for a horror film that is profoundly unsettling and populated with complex central characters.
Kill List is available now on DVD and Blu-ray from Madman.Rating: