REVIEW: Ben Wheatley's Kill List Works Hard to Be a Cult Film — Which Is Why It Can Never Be One

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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.

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  • ILDC says:

    Why do people want things to be "cult"? Do they not want to see it everywhere, liked by their parents?

  • Patrick Hallstein says:

    Putting something out there that has the potential to become a cult film, a work of genuine art, is most likely right now to be taken as a sign of pretension, of elitism -- a big no-no when only bland aristocratics get to constitute the 1 %. If you're too concerned to affect us, show no disconcern that you leave no chance whatever for what you hope to communicate not to be communicated, it likely means you haven't spent all that much time developing yourself and care not a whiff if what you do draws anyone to aspire higher -- and are therefore thin enough to catch on with TODAY'S emerging subterranean movement: "the 99 %"; the folk.

    • huntergrayson says:

      Or, a "cult" film, by definition is one that catches on with the audience despite itself rather than being purposefully made to be a "cult" film. It's like camp. If you're trying to be campy on purpose, it ruins it.

      Rocky Horror Picture Show is a "cult" film but Fox wasn't the one encouraging audiences to throw toilet paper at the screen. They just made a musical Showgirls is a cult and camp film, but the filmmakers wanted to make a big-budget blockbuster. Eraserhead was just Lynch's weird little personal project.

      A cult is something that catches on after the film comes out, not something that is deliberately manufactured. And quite often, cult films AREN'T works of genuine art.

      Unless I'm wrong and people are watching The Room because it's a masterpiece.

      • huntergrayson says:

        Brava, however, for making the most tortured OWS/99% metaphor I've seen though.

        • Patrick Hallstein says:

          I was arguing that what would have previously garnered a film cult status, is now going to ensure it simply gets ignored, by everyone (Nathaniel West was ignored in the Depression, and became cult only a generation later). I myself think it's possible. I gather you don't agree.

      • Patrick Hallstein says:

        I'm not sure if it's quite right to say that cult films strike the quick -- too much, perhaps -- but they certainly touch upon something vital that elsewhere has gone displeasingly untouched. I'm considering whether or not you're right to argue that cult films aren't necessarily works of art, but will have to think about it more -- it strikes me that what art is, more than anything, is something vital: something that a weird personal project that unaccountably blossoms into a lasting phenom, can't but be. Perhaps all Art does is include works actually intended to be great, which is not so atypically the case for great works actually produced in Romantic -- growth and permission-favoring -- times.

  • Morgo says:

    This review crystallises my own thoughts about seeing this movie, which I previously would have articulated as "kind of but not really". There was something wrong with the story that made it less effective despite being quite tense moment to moment. In the UK it was marketted openly as being the cool film to watch , though I never talked to anyone who had seen it, enjoyed it, or even heard about it.

  • toldyouso says:

    This 'review' is the biggest load of intellectually challenged wank I've seen in a long time.
    Either go and see the film and make up your own mind or read a review with a bit of intelligence.

    [link redacted by editor]

    • S.T. VanAirsdale says:

      I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Feel free to weigh in with your commentary, but do not use our content as a link bed of your own. They will be yanked.

  • Marc Calderaro says:

    I don't think I'll ever quite understand Ms. Zacharek. Review after review I can't tell if I think what she's saying makes any sense at all or if we even watched the same film. It's hard for me to know because it's been a full 16 months since I saw KILL LIST, but it was by far my favorite film at SXSW last year. Of course the film's a mess -- each act is a different sub-genre -- but much like Wheatley's stellar first film, Down Terrace, the mish-mashing of subgenres and different types of emotional exploitation is exactly what makes it compelling.

    Wheatley asks the audience in both of his films to bring everything they know about genre with you; and when you do, you're rewarded. I think calling that an attempt manufacture a cult is pretty condescending to what Wheatley is trying to achieve. KILL LIST isn't "Smokin' Aces" or "Revolver" or, worse, "Bellflower". Those are all films whose tone screams to be taken seriously and to be seen as "cool" above all else. To say that the art that Wheatley is striving for plays second fiddle to making his film edgy or "cult-y" shows a real cynicism to the writing and directing which, I feel, is pretty meticulous, careful, and most of all -- earnest. That last quality is one of the things I enjoy so much about Wheatley's work and hate about this review. Zacharek affords Wheatley very little credence towards his genuineness which I feel is earned in every frame. Just because part of his aim is to pull out the rug, doesn't mean it's a hollow trick.

    Some of the earlier films of Christopher Nolan (who I know Zacharek is not a fan), come to mind. I rewatched Memento not to long ago, and I was reminded about how well-written and thought-out the film really is. There was a big backlash against the film after its release, and though Memento is certainly too kitschy for its own good, I don't think anyone would argue that it was "designed to be a cult film". It's nothing if not earnest. And that might even be the film's largest downfall. I feel similarly about KILL LIST.

    Like Down Terrace, the film's final act departs strongly from where you thought the film was going, but the script led you down the exact path it wanted. Cast adrift in a sea of mediocre, reductive and redundant genre films, Zackarek is going to single out this bastion of inventiveness as the one trying to manufacture a cult? Sorry, but I just don't get it.

    I was certainly along for the ride, and Wheatley kept me guessing, and in a way that didn't seem like he was making it up as he went along -- even though that's what it looked like. Wheatley tried to juggle a lot of large, cumbersome balls. And even if it's not ultimately successful, it wasn't just for show.