REVIEW: Ben Wheatley's Kill List Works Hard to Be a Cult Film — Which Is Why It Can Never Be One
Everyone wants to be the one to discover the next low-budget and/or indie supernatural shocker, the stylish, wicked little thing that scares the bejesus out of you and sends you running to your friends, saying, “You’ve gotta see this!” UK filmmaker Ben Wheatley’s Kill List isn’t that wicked little thing -- not by a long shot. Yet it’s a frustrating case. Wheatley drops enough unnerving bread crumbs in the first two-thirds to leave you wondering where the hell he’s headed, and even the big finale should be satisfying enough: It just belongs to a different movie, and it’s unsettling in a way that doesn’t feel earned.
That Kill List begins, seemingly, as a standard domestic drama is just one of Wheatley’s intentional red herrings. (He co-wrote the script with Amy Jump.) In the movie’s opening scene Jay (Neil Maskell) is bickering with his wife, Shel (MyAnna Buring), in the presence of their somewhat daft-looking young son, Sam (Harry Simpson). It turns out Jay, an altogether regular-looking and somewhat doughy husband type, hasn’t worked for months: He’s a hit man and the hits just haven’t been coming, since he botched his last job. Then buddy and former associate Gal (Michael Smiley) shows up at the couple’s home for a dinner party, a leggy stretch of girlfriend in tow: He wants to loop Jay into a gig he’s been offered, which requires offing a number of targets. Meanwhile, the sultry, doe-eyed girlfriend, Fiona (Emma Fryer), who looks pretty friendly and normal-like (she explains to her hosts that she works in “human resources”), slips into the couple’s bathroom, removes a mirror from the wall, and does something funny to the back of it.
It’s the first of the movie’s numerous “What the -- ?” moments, some of which involve episodes of grim brutality that are at first discreetly presented, and then less so. That’s part of Wheatley’s MO: When the violence first kicks off, he cuts away, lulling you into thinking he’s not going to be exploitive. Surprise! Get ready for – and there’s a minor spoiler ahead, though it has nothing to do with the movie’s allegedly supershocking finale – seeing a bunch of brains blown all over a table, like the contents of the world’s ewkiest piñata. Later, we’re treated to a partial view of a rabbit skinning – yum!
Should we commend Wheatley – who previously made the 2009 crime comedy Down Terrace - for putting us off guard only to pull the rug out from us? Or is he really just being a sneaky cheat? The more I think about Kill List, the cheaper its shockeroo tactics seem, despite the fact that through its first two-thirds, the picture is compelling almost in spite of itself. Kill List features lots of unapologetic art-house cutting: Scenes are edited into jagged shards, the better to dislocate us with. And in places, it’s bitterly funny. When Jay and Gal approach the first mark on their list – I won’t tell you who it is, but it’s the type of person neither you nor I would be particularly happy about killing – Gal says dryly, “Well, at least it’s not a toddler.”
But the plot of Kill List depends too much on Jay’s descent-into-madness routine, and it doesn’t quite wash. This is definitely a guy with a habit of flying off the handle: He threatens physical harm to a bunch of meek, happy Christians who break into a spirited rendition of “Onward Christian Soldiers” in a restaurant. (OK, maybe that’s not so bad.) The idea is that this seemingly devoted family man has, you know, a dark side. This is a guy who’s so used to killing without reason that he no longer needs a reason: Kill List has been carefully and disingenuously front-loaded with post-Iraq meaning.
And that’s before it takes a sharp left turn into Wicker Man-style folderol. Kill List is meticulously designed to be a cult film, which means it can never truly be one: It grabs its audience by the collar instead of beckoning seductively and carelessly. The conclusion of Kill List would be more unsettling if the subtle gradation of clues leading up to it didn’t raise so many unanswered questions, just for the hell of it. A mysteriously infected hand, instances of people thanking other people for things they haven’t even done yet – those could have been superb little macabre touches, if only they’d been woven more tightly into the narrative and not just left dangling like shabby hangnails. By the time Kill List jumps off the deep end into occulty weirdness, it’s almost too late for shock value. The ending is designed to make us recoil in horror. But you might be left wondering why you’d bothered with any of it in the first place.