Kill List (Ben Wheatley, 2011)

Ben Wheatley shot his first feature, Down Terrace (2009) in just eight days and on a ridiculously modest budget somewhere in the region of £6,000 (the actors deferred their wages until the film eventually made some money back).  He used real locations, such as the house of a friend’s father, who he also had star in the film. The film went on to win the Raindance Award at the British Independent Film Awards in 2009, and Wheatley was awarded a Best Newcomer prize by the Evening Standard British Film Awards in 2010.

With Kill List, the budget has improved but Wheatley’s modus operandi has remained much the same. He still uses real, albeit fairly anonymous locations; ring roads, petrol stations, lock-ups, suburban housing estates – these are the areas his desultory characters inhabit. But lest you think Wheatley is yet another British director fashioning some kind of social-realist aesthetic, think again – his filmic territory is more like Ken Loach meets John Carpenter.

Jay (Neil Maskell) and Gal (Michael Smiley) are two best friends and former Army buddies. Jay is back in England following his last mission in Iraq, and is having real problems settling back into suburban married life with his Swedish-born wife, Shel (MyAnna Buring) and their son Sam (Harry Simpson). In an attempt to help his mate out, and get him back into the world of work, Gal proposes Jay joins him in some lucrative work, as contract killers for the shady Client (Struan Rodger). The Client provides the two pals with their “kill list” and a suitcase full of money, and soon the pair are on the road, glad to be working together again.

What makes Kill List so unsettling is that Wheatley grounds these characters in everyday reality. During a fraught dinner party with Gal and new girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer), for example, talk turns to the recession, to lack of money, and we understand that these people are just trying to get by like everyone else. Fiona works in Human Resources, essentially firing people for a living. Both Jay and Gal have their problems-and Jay in particular seems to have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – but nothing that a nice bit of work can’t sort out. The difference is that Jay and Gal kill people for a living. What’s more unsettling is that Jay’s wife Shel knows what he does, is complicit in his actions, and nags him about not working; as if he were simply an unemployed plumber going through a bad stretch.

What starts as a realist drama about two hitmen going about their business then suddenly takes some very unexpected turns. Gal’s girlfriend Fiona carves a Hex-style emblem into the back of Jay and Shel’s bathroom mirror. Is she putting a spell on the house, on Jay and Shel? Later, she turns up unexpectedly at Shel’s when Jay and Gal are away working, and tells Shel she’s waiting, but waiting for what? Meanwhile, on the road, Jay is becoming increasingly unhinged, as his previous professionalism on the job gives way to out-and-out violence and brutality.

Wheatley shifts the focus of the film, in its 2nd half, to a very British type of horror.  Calling to mind Brit-Horror classic The Wicker Man, Jay and Gal encounter a weird late-night torch-lit procession going on down in the woods; and when they erroneously intervene, they are chased by the mask wearing mob, complete with flaming torches and knifes. The film then proceeds to a bizarre and unsettling finale that leaves more questions than answers. Wheatley doesn’t favour exposition, so don’t expect much in the way of explanation or a tidy resolution to the story. Like the spooky soundscapes and jerky jump-cuts he employs throughout, this is a film-maker who is out to undermine and wrong foot the audience’s expectations at every turn, but who never talks down to them.

You are left to make of Kill List what you will. I can’t say that I fully understood what the hell was going on by the end of the film, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days afterwards.

Kill List is on general release now.

You can watch the trailer here

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