Film Review – Kill List

Kill List Movie PosterKill List starts off with a subtle air of tension. Jay (Neil Maskell) is currently unemployed, with a wife and child. We soon learn he hasn’t had a job in over a year, and the last one he did have did not go well. His wife Shel (MyAnna Buring) is unhappy and the two are not getting along. One night while Jay’s closest friend Gal (Michael Smiley) and his girlfriend are over for dinner, Shel’s and Jay’s feelings clash in an explosive argument. The situation leaves a rather bad taste in the mouth of Gal’s girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer) concerning her opinion of Jay. In response, she takes action that is directly responsible for what is going to happen to Jay.

In what feel like scenes almost ripped from a John Cassevetes film, the first act plays out like a relationship drama, and the film takes a sudden, decided twist when Jay shows Gal a rather large assault rifle he has in a special case in the garage. At some point it becomes apparent that Jay and Gal are hitmen, and the two take on a new job. They are told there will be two lists of names, and that they’ll receive the second list when the first has been completed. As they work their way down the list, each hit becomes more terrifying and surreal.

There’s something almost amazing about this film. Scenes are structured like a European art-house film. The camera lingers with no urgency and plays directly into the editing, which itself is some of the most clever decision making a film’s employed to its advantage as a genre film in recent memory. To be more specific, the editing plays into and alters our expectations of when and where a scene should end. While, like Hitchcock, some scenes will cut away from the anticipated horror, at other times it’s more like Lucio Fulci or Dario Argento, with the shot lingering on an atrocity we never believed we would actually see.  And the acting is surprisingly dead on.

So what makes Kill List an almost? Mainly, the biggest problem facing this film is its structural use of the storytelling. Director and co-writer Ben Wheatley is essentially mixing two distinct sub-genres of films, the hitman and cultist/satanist films—subs of action and horror. While both genres can simply be represented through visual intent, when they get more specific—i.e., with cults and hitmen—there are certain finer necessities that should be met for an audience to feel satisfied. Being esoteric in film can work to the movie’s advantage, as David Lynch has shown us, but it can also lose the audience entirely; see Richard Kelly post Donnie Darko (the theatrical release). Wheatley somehow manages to toe the line between both these examples. The pacing and cinematography, mixed with the sound and visual editing, lend themselves to a very atmospheric and believable cinemascape. When the bizarre and horrific begin to happen, it’s acceptable and even welcomed, because the tension derived from the filmmaking is on point. It’s impressive. But, there are essential elements of what is happening, or what the audience perceives is happening, that are missing from completing a satisfying view.

Kill List 1

Much of what the audience is expected to interpret from “the missing” relies on their prior knowledge of the finer points of these used sub-genres. I walked away feeling that if I had not seen films such as The Wicker Man, Race with the Devil, and The Devil Rides Out prior to this film, I would not have come to the conclusions that I had. Granted, there are some aspects of the abstract that are taking place that are all too clear, with visual intent only, but the places they lead us to have gaps that feel like unintended shortcuts in the story. Even dialogue that is cryptic and intriguing at best is never given enough for it to feel like it has much meaning beyond just being cryptic and intriguing.

Still, Wheatley has crafted a finely tuned piece of genre entertainment. It is most effective at employing visual tactics that scare, thrill and even frustrate, while maintaining a depth of character. While there might not be much sympathy for Jay, he feels like a complete being, not just a centerpiece to serve the movie. One of the standout performances and characters of the film is MyAnna Buring as Shel. As the climax reaches its zenith, Shel proves to be one of the strongest characters and has proven to maintain it throughout the film, which makes her role in the climax that much more interesting.

Kill List opens at SIFF Cinema at the Uptown today.

Final Grade: B


Benjamin Nason is a writer, film-maker and critic from the Pacific Northwest, where he lives with his cat Lulu.

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