Kill List opens emphatically in media res: a woman, her face in close up, screaming abuse at her husband whilst their fearful young son listens in his bedroom. The couple are Jay and Shel, both former soldiers, now living in comfort in the hills near Sheffield. When Jay’s friend Gal (also ex-army) brings his new girlfriend round for dinner, there follows an evening of tension, and another blazing row. Think Mike Leigh, less sharply observed but with a harder edge. I couldn’t decide whether these sudden arguments suffered from a slight weakness in acting or if it was intented that they appeared launched into with such relish.
Also unlike the unintrusive Leigh, Ben Wheatley composes his stories with a highly stylised mixing pot of sight and sound: dialogue from one scene will bleed into images of the next (or previous) whilst sharply cut shots (of, for example, a melancholy hug) contribute meaning and depth with beautiful economy. The music, woozy and resonant, links it all together, and achieves an intriguing effect as the film progresses: on at least two occasions, I was unsure whether a prominent sound was extradiegetic or part of the characters’ experience, adding an extra layer to the general unease.
Jay and Gal make their money as hit men; we see Gal persuade his friend out of temporary retirement to take on the titular job. It soon becomes clear that Jay has what we might call ‘issues’ – giving himself reasons to go outside his remit and commit some pretty horrific acts. The film doesn’t shirk from showing these properly: one scene in particular, involving a hammer, is reminiscent of the infamous fire extinguisher shot in Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible. Indeed Wheatley has some Noé-esque comments to make about the depiction of violence in films (at 3:25 in this video). It’s a position with which I think I’m in broad agreement.
What seems like an (excellently made) post-traumatic Iraq war film than takes a major turn for the weird in its final section, almost eschewing the rest of the film entirely – but it works. Aided by the music and some deft camerawork, the ‘discovery’ sequence here was one of the creepiest things I’ve seen for a while. It’s great to see a director confident enough to plant a seed of doubt early on – in this case, Gal’s girlfriend carving a strange symbol on the back of her hosts’ bathroom mirror – and leave it to gestate, unelaborated on for the best part of an hour. Wheatley is similarly happy to leave loose ends untied when the credits roll: his is a horror film that leaves you surprised and confused – ‘disturbed’, in the best sense of the word.