Ben Wheatley has made a considerable impact on the British film industry since he rocketed onto our screens 12 years ago with Down Terrace. An idiosyncratically funny and unpleasant gangster yarn that plays like an English fly-on-the-wall version of The Sopranos written by Gervais or Coogan, Wheatley followed up this auspicious debut with the dark comedy Sightseers (a psychopathic spiritual sequel to Mike Leigh’s Nuts in May), bonkers historical thriller A Field in England and an adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s deliciously mad dystopian satire High-Rise. Returning somewhat uneasily to his comedy roots in Free Fire, he then indulged in some Play For Today-style miserabilism with Happy New Year, Colin Burstead before honing last year’s regrettably mediocre remake of Hitchcock’s classic Rebecca. In light of the news that Wheatley is set to direct a sequel to the thoroughly silly shark-fest The Meg, I have a nagging feeling that this singular indie talent has lost a few of his creative marbles, something I dearly hope to be proven astronomically wrong about.
Kill List, Wheatley’s breakthrough sophomore effort that got plenty of cinephilic tongues wagging back in 2011, is undoubtedly my favourite of his offerings. A deeply atmospheric and uncomfortable blend of kitchen sink drama, crime thriller and folk horror, it’s a work that is memorable for naturalistic acting and an extremely foreboding alignment of visual imagery and soundscape. This seamless chimera of styles also boasts a satisfyingly minimalist approach to exposition, presenting us with an esoteric and unforgettable riff on trauma, dysfunction and destiny.
Jay (Neil Maskell) is a former soldier living with his wife Shel (MyAnna Buring) and son Sam (Harry Simpson) in a quiet and leafy English suburb. As soon as the film opens, we are privy to the extreme marital tension within the household, a defensive Jay heatedly rebuffing Shel’s concerns about their financial stability. Jay’s military career was bookended by a mysterious tour in Kyiv that appears to have left him with severe PTSD, and while he is a doting father towards Sam, his lethargy and quicksilver temperament have led to him bringing home zero bacon in eight months and his domestic future hanging in the balance.
The friction comes to a head during a dinner party that the couple has organised with Jay’s best friend Gal (Michael Smiley) and his new girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer). A fellow erstwhile serviceman who was by Jay’s side during the shadowy events of Kyiv, Gal’s experiences haven’t left him anywhere near as troubled as our main man, and what begins as a cordial enough evening culminates in a violent outburst from Jay in reaction to Shel’s passive-aggressive remarks about his idling. Heading to his garage for a calm-down smoke, Jay is joined by Gal, the latter informing us of the duo’s career progression since leaving the army: these fellas are killers-for-hire. Reassuring Jay that the elimination of three designated targets will bring them a substantial payday, Jay is coaxed into taking on the job by Shel (herself an ex-soldier who is well aware of her husband’s profession). Vexed by Gal discussing the assignment with Shel behind his back, Jay is nevertheless sold by the opportunity to make some serious bank and the boys arrange a meeting with their client.
A phenomenally sinister and reticent black-eyed gentleman, The Client (Struan Rodger) cryptically conveys to our men that he knows a great deal about them, including their ‘stormy’ Kyiv detail. Without warning, the man slices Jay’s palm open with a knife and then does the same to himself, effectively signing their contract in blood. The bewildered and slightly shaken hitmen try to laugh off the weirdness before bidding farewell to normality, journeying around a series of drab discount hotels as they prepare to whack out the unfortunate folks on their list. Unbeknownst to them, Jay & Gal have entered a veritable rabbit-hole of sheer horror, an arcane world of occult fanaticism and stomach-churning depravity that will envelop us and our heroes in a shroud of doom from which there might be no escape.
While the sub-genre of ‘crime horror’ can so easily slip into goofy B-movie time killers or pretentious and exploitative trash e.g. Dead Cert and Wolves at the Door, Wheatley elects to furnish Kill List with an elliptical art-house sensibility that handsomely rewards viewers looking for darkness that is free of thinly-written audience placation. We are immediately thrust into a powerfully uneasy observer status as we survey the raw and authentic tribulations of Jay & Shel, scenes of their daily familial strife evocative of the cinema-verite approach of Cassavetes or Oldman’s Nil By Mouth. The role of Jay is one that fully summons Maskell’s talents in a way that transcends his stints in fodder like The Football Factory, believably running an intense gamut of emotions that cements a deeply complex character, Jay being a man we are simultaneously fearful of and for. He palpably loves his wife and child very much, but his fractured psyche and antisocial tendencies place him on an inevitable path of disarray and destruction. Maskell maintains terrific and immersive chemistry with Smiley, Gal’s easy-going level-headedness providing an ostensible behaviour mediator for Jay, but when we see how he jovially encourages Jay’s intimidation of a group of harmlessly musical Christians at the first hotel they crash in, we realise he’s just as much of a toxic bastard. To be in their line of work, it probably helps.
This raw and unglamourised depiction of the professional killer (Jay & Gal being a couple of tawdry-looking guys who have never really grown up and steal soap from hotel bathrooms) is a perfect underpinning to the film’s grimly ominous trajectory. Their blokeish, mercenary sociopathy gives them the illusion that they’re the big dogs in control of proceedings, but as viewers, we are imbued with that notion that the two are hapless pawns in something bigger early on. Atmospherically, Kill List maintains a ceaseless air of disquieting menace thanks to the cinematography of Laurie Rose, his lens capturing all of the main players’ activities with close-up, claustrophobic precision interspersed with otherwise unassuming shots of grey, windy residential areas that are suffused with the unmistakable aura that things are very much ‘off’. This is bolstered by a very gothic sense of ‘Englishness’ throughout the piece, Jay and Gal’s laddish levity and scuzzy amorality juxtaposed with nods to Arthurian legend and increasingly Pagan imagery. The descent into the abyss is aided by sporadic yet extreme violence, Jay’s worsening behaviour marching in lockstep with the duo’s increasingly dire unearthings about their mission. Jim Williams’ adroit score is enough to make the hairs on the back of one’s neck stand up in and of itself, but the events it is married to just make it addictively more unbearable.
It’s a slow-burn, vicious genre-juggler that ultimately leaves everything up to the viewer’s interpretation, and it’s for that reason that Kill List is a modern British classic. Powerfully acted with nuanced stylistic trappings that cannily flesh it out as one of the worst nightmares someone could experience, it remains Ben Wheatley’s magnum opus and a gold standard for horror cinema. If you like your despair served unpredictably and originally (and mentally scarring), this one here is just the ticket.