I am doing the 31 Days of Horror Challenge. Every day in October, I will watch a different horror film I have never seen before and write about it here on the blog.
Kill List opens with Jay (Neil Maskell) arguing with his wife Shel (MyAnna Buring) about their financial troubles. He wants to know where all their money has gone and she counters with the fact that he hasn’t worked in eight months. The argument increases in intensity and profanity, despite the presence of their seven-year-old son Sam (Harry Simpson) in the next room. Soon they’re joking and holding each other before violently arguing again. This is the cycle of their relationship and it’s repeated throughout the film.
If not for the nice home and relatively glamorous appearance of Shel, the first act of Kill List could be mistaken for another “British Miserablism” film. All the usual signifiers are there: unemployment, alcohol abuse, a formerly loving couple now at each other’s throats, a child caught in the middle. But with a title like Kill List and the fact that I am writing about it as part of my 31 Days of Horror, it shouldn’t be a surprise when the film makes a slow turn into horror territory beyond the recognizable real world terrors of financial desperation.
It turns out that Jay and his partner Gal (Michael Smiley) are hit men. Their last job went bad and had such a traumatizing effect on Jay that he hasn’t been able to bring himself to return to work. But the financial squeeze becomes too much to handle. When Gal approaches him with a seemingly easy job killing three targets for a sinister client (Struan Rodger), he can’t pass up the opportunity.
But Jay is far more psychologically damaged than anyone has realized. When he unleashes the violent side of his personality, it makes the job that much more difficult for he and Gal. At the same time, strange things start happening to the pair. Their first target seems only too happy to die and thanks Jay before taking a bullet in the head and the client seals their deal by slashing Jay across the hand with a knife. Then things turn very weird in ways that are better discovered by watching the film.
Kill List is a hard film to recommend to all but the most narrow of audiences. The protagonists are angry killers, the story is pitch-black, the violence is disturbing and intimate, and there is hardly an ounce of entertainment value to be found. But it is compelling and gets under the skin.
Part of the reason the film works is the casting. As Jay, Maskell not only captures the volcanic temper of the character, but also draws unexpected humor from the danger lurking just under the surface. A scene where he smugly cooks and eats a rabbit that the family cat has killed, just to show up Shel, is funny simply because of the satisfied look on his face. As Gal, Smiley is the perfect foil for Jay’s intensity. Just as dangerous as his partner, but with the ability to maintain a light tone, even when things go sideways on them, he keeps the film from completely going over the cliff into full-blown nihilism.
Co-writer/director Ben Wheatley had the cast improvise much of their dialogue. While this is not a great thing when it comes to arguments where the actors seem to just yell “Fuck You!” repeatedly, when it comes to the numerous scenes of Jay and Gal observing targets or eating dinner, it works well. Their natural rapport is of two old friends who can and do talk about anything. Despite how much they occasionally argue and physically fight, it’s not hard to see that Jay might love Gal more than he loves his family.
The third act of the film is a descent into Hell that may or may not be imagined by Jay. But it doesn’t matter if the events are real or not. The scenes are nightmarish, violent, and build to a gut-punch of a climax. If it is all in Jay’s head, his mind has completely abandoned him. If it is real, he can only blame himself for how badly things have gone.
It may be a hard film to watch, but Kill List is a nightmare you will never forget. In it’s own strange way, it’s a very moral film that suggests we all will have to face a reckoning for our misdeeds. That might be scarier than any monster that can be imagined.
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