The Big Kill
Kill List 2011 UK
Directed by Ben Wheatley
Screening at UK cinemas
Although I’m not going to talk about specific story details of anything that takes place after the first half of this movie has played out...it’s really hard to talk about the kind of film Kill List actually is without at least spoiling the surprise of what it turns out to be. So, if like me, you managed to stay away from all the publicity this one garnered at certain festivals and on Twitter and you think Kill List is just another British crime thriller... you might want to turn back at this point and go see it totally blind like I did.
If you’re still with me I’d like to start off by saying that Kill List reminded me of two things when it comes to the art and craft of movie making. Two things that, I have to say, are rarely a given any more with modern cinema.
Number one is... movies can be very powerful. They can ooze a certain degree of thought-influencing juju from the very pores of their celluloid skin. Number two is... sometimes the power of a movie is not in what is shown on screen, but lies with what is not shown on screen. Kill List is very much an exponent of movies which have these kinds of qualities in spades.
The film starts off as very much a character study of domestic tension between a husband and wife and their little boy. The husband Jay (played by Neil Maskell) and the wife Shel (played by MyAnna Buring, who horror genre fans might recognise from her role as one of the girls in The Descent movies... the first of which was excellent) are at the end of their rope pretty much. The money has run out and Jay hasn’t got a job since his days of soldiering went horribly wrong in an unspecified manner. When his also ex-soldier mate Gal (played by Michael Smiley who was Tyres in Spaced and who I was trying really hard to “place” all through the duration of the film) comes to dinner with his new girlfriend in tow the domestic tensions spill over and it really gets quite hard to watch for a while there.
Think of the reality that someone like Mike Leigh would spin on this kind of material and you’d be half there to the “in your face-ness” of it all... but Wheatley has a very interesting cinematic style. I mentioned about the power of a movie sometimes coming from what’s not shown and this director has this edited in such a way that, although you can strongly feel the emotional impact of the characters and know where that’s at (due to some truly magnificent performances), things are kind of peered at in little sections and spliced together so what you actually get is an impression of who these people are, and it’s a very deep impression, without actually knowing much of anything about them. Gal has brought Jay the possibility of a job working with him and it’s only after a while that you realise the job that Jay is being talked into picking up is as a hitman, which seems to be something the two have done before.
Wheatley does some other interesting things with sound here to make you really feel the “authenticity” of the scenario and he makes use of overlapping soundtrack spills between scenes to shift you along... but it’s even more interesting than usual when he does this because he quite often uses the sound of a completely different emotional state overlapping... or rather grating... against the visual images. So an image of deep depression and tension can suddenly have the sound of fun and laughter on the soundtrack for 7 or 8 seconds before you are suddenly thrust into the next sequence where the sound matches up. The emotional juxtaposition actually seems to punch the pace of the film up so it feels like its hurtling along when, in reality, not much really happens for that first half an hour. There’s even a shot where he does this visually in one hit without a sound enhancement where Jay and Shel are in a sad and contemplative mood at the foreground of a shot while Gal and his “mysterious new girlfriend” are cavorting wildly in the background.
He does something else very clever with sound in a few sequences too but I’ll get to that later. Another great thing this director does visually is not shy away from contemplation... characters seen alone and with their thoughts for chunks of time give a real emotional impact and it’s quite a strange feeling to be manipulated to empathising this closely with characters whom you know nothing about. There are some great shots of MyAnna Buring on her own within a frame which take on almost Bermannesque status in their visual intensity and emotional colouring.
And then you get your first clue that the rest of the movie is not going to be as straight forward as it looks when Gals new girlfriend is alone in the bathroom and scratches a symbol, the same symbol seen in the opening credit of the movie, into the back of her hosts wall mirror. Strange things are afoot.
And then Jay and Gal go to get the job from their new client, which is to kill three people on a list (The Priest, The Librarian and The Politician) but Jay is taken by surprise when their new boss slits both Jay's and his own hand open to seal the contract with blood. Things really begin to pick up a pace then as we see Jay and Gal staking out their victims and all the while we are beginning to slowly realise that the main protagonist really is quite psychotic. The first victim smiles at him as he goes to shoot him and when he gets upset and extracts information (which leads to much more extracurricular torture and killing as Jay goes up against some people he really doesn’t like) from the victim whom he is smashing up with a hammer, the victim is, amongst all the screams, thanking him for it. “I know who you are” he says to Jay at one point, showing that it’s an honour to be paid a visit by the man... Jay, of course, doesn’t know what’s going on and he keeps a lot of this to himself.
There are some really wonderfully bleak, almost Lynchian scenes here like the sequence where Gal goes into “enemy territory” with a shot gun to find out what the heck has happened to Jay. And this is where that second trick of sound comes in that I was talking about earlier... well I say trick, it’s an interesting technique which I’m sure I’ve seen/heard done before... I just happened to notice it last night. During certain scenes the director turns off the naturalistic sound and builds tension through an alternate soundtrack overlap... and not so much music but industrial noise almost. Kinda like something Alan R. Splet might have designed for Eraserhead. This is used to punch up the tension during certain sequences and it works really well. Kurosawa would do something similar with music and it’s juxtaposition against a sequence of naturalistic sound (think the big battle sequence in Ran)... Wheatley does it with ugly and uneasy sounds it seems to me.
There are some pretty violent scenes here and because of the way this one is shot, you are still kinda sympathising for Jay and Gal, even though Jay is doing some pretty dreadful things to his victims. And then, once you think you’ve got a handle on the kind of movie it is... things start kicking into high gear and you realise there’s something even more sinister going on. Each section of the movie, once "the job" is underway, is titled after the name of each “contract” and, by the time you get to “The Politician” and Jay has been sent “a message”, and by message I mean his cat is killed and strung up outside the door of the family home, you really start to wonder what kind of conclusion this film will have.
Well all I’m saying is that Mr. Ben Wheatley’s movie gets to point about 20 mins from the end and then it all starts to go a bit Mr. Dennis Wheatley for the finale. In fact, to not put too fine a point on it, this film is very much a modern equivalent of Robin Hardy’s cult classic The Wicker Man and, while the ending of this film is in some ways predictable (when a fourth caption comes up on screen as The Hunchback... you should have no problem working out the exact, dual identity of this persona) it is also vastly less penetrable than that aforementioned chiller.
When I came out of the cinema I came out thinking a few things. They were:
1. It’s not a horror film anymore than the supernaturally disguised giallo All The Colours Of The Dark is a horror.
2. That was unsettling.
3. I never have to watch this movie again in my life and
4. Why the f*** did that just happen? I’m as baffled as the lead character as to why any of that just occurred.
However, having lived with the memory of this film now for a day I’d have to say that I take back points 1 and 3. Because, just like The Wicker Man before it, there are little clues hidden all the way through this movie and I want to look at them again to see if they reveal anything. This movie might actually have a supernatural content to it but it’s alluded to quite subtly and there’s a slight possibility that this movie may be a horror movie after all. Frankly, I know the director has put those clues in, I’m sure, not to give me any closure but to deliberately make me think and ponder little moments and intricacies of a story which is, I think, designed to be baffling in some ways. And by doing so, he’s cleverly built a certain longevity into his movie which you won’t normally find in other contemporary fayre and it almost begs repeat viewings. This one definitely will have a passionate following for years to come... I won’t use the word “cult” because I believe that definition to be overused and transient in terms of its usefulness to film appreciation but, for a small amount of time it may well have a similar kind of status.
Either way you look at it, Kill List is to be applauded for being a truly powerful and thought-provoking movie amongst a sea of much more forgettable multiplex fodder. It truly gives me hope that the art of film is not completely dead and buried as yet. It’s an absolute must see for genuine cineastes, it has to be said, but be warned... some of you may find the way the scenes of violence are handled to be quite unsettling, if not disturbing, depending on how jaded a viewer you are. Easily one of the best crafted English language movies of the year and I take my hat* off to all involved.
*I don’t wear hats actually but if I did, I would raise it in the presence of this director as a sign of respect.