Review: Kill List

Film review
Directed by Ben Wheatley
Starring Neil Maskell, Michael Smiley, MyAnna Buring
Release date 2 September 2011

Following a disastrous job in Kiev, Jay (Maskell) has given up his life as a hitman. But with dwindling funds, he finds he has little choice when former partner Gal (Smiley) suggests taking on one last job. A mysterious man in a hotel room gives the pair a hit list of people to assassinate. But the job is not entirely as it seems…

Kill List” sounds like it ought to be the title to a Steven Seagal movie. Or possibly something with Jason Statham. Don’t be fooled: it’s not. This is the best horror film of 2011.

It is still, however, a film about tough guys – they just happen to be more psychologically damaged than most. On the surface, Neil Maskell’s Jay seems like an ordinary, if hot-headed, husband and father – a man who thinks nothing of spending the entire shopping budget on tuna fish and red wine. Yet it emerges that he is a man with a murky past who’s plagued by psychological problems.  As he sets about offing the names on his list (accompanied by dramatic on-screen titles: “The Priest”; “The Librarian”; “The MP”), his tendency towards violence and retribution threatens to derail the whole job.

Jay’s best friend and partner Gal (Michael Smiley – who Spaced fans may recognise as Tyres) is no less proficient at killing. But he’s able to control his emotions a little better, even if he has his own problems – as he admits to Jay through a whiskey haze, surely there must be someone out there to make his life a little less lonely?

The relationship between Jay and Gal is believable and in a strange way almost touching, helped by terrific performances from Maskell and Smiley, who bring out their characters’ complex psychologies. The pair joke around, swear at each other, get drunk, fight – it’s a fraught relationship to be sure, but they feel like genuine best friends with a shared history.

Kill List isn’t just a film about blokes though. The relationship between Jay and his wife Shel has a realistic dynamic rarely seen in cinema. The first time we’re introduced to them, the couple are screaming at each other – the first of many furious arguments we see throughout the movie, which are often watched over by their young son. Yet despite their tempestuous personalities, the film never suggests the relationship is actually on the rocks – they may argue, but they also joke around and have an undying passion for each other. Shel is also seen to be just as tough and complex as Jay, with her time spent in the Swedish army blessing her with some handy firearms skills.

But hang on: hitmen and believable relationships… This is supposed to be a horror movie, right? Right. And Kill List is much creepier for keeping its horror mostly at its fringe. Through elliptical storytelling and bizarre imagery and concepts, Ben Wheatley and his co-writer (and wife) Amy Jump build up a feeling of paranoia and mounting dread, as the pair begin to wonder exactly who they’re working for and why their employer knows so much about them.

Wheatley added his own original spin to the worn-out British gangster movie with 2010’s Down Terrace, and he does the same for horror here, throwing in nods to genre greats (Don’t Look Now, The Shining, The Wicker Man, The Descent) while creating something very original. He crafts some unbearably tense set pieces – a lengthy tracking shot as Gal searches for his friend past yellow skips and a series of doors; a horrific pursuit through a tunnel – but the horror mostly comes from a subtle, escalating sense of menace.

Kill List, then, is both a believable relationship drama and a horror movie – and it works as a black comedy to boot.  As Jay wonders what the “little chef hats” are doing on his lamb rack or rounds on a Bible group for belting out songs of praise in a hotel dining room, the bitter laughs keep on coming, highlighting Wheatley’s background in writing for shows such as Time Trumpet and Modern Toss. They are, however, uneasy laughs – for you just know that something bad is around the corner… Matt McAllister

A strange, funny and believable hitman thriller/relationship drama/horror film. It’s a difficult film to sum up – and it’s better to go in knowing as little as possible – but Kill List is a very special Brit horror that breaks from genre conventions.


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