Kill List

Kill List

****

Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

Simultaneously borrowing the DNA of gritty Seventies thrillers such as Get Carter and classic horror fare such as The Wicker Man, while throwing in elements from any number of Mike Leigh-type kitchen sink dramas for good measure, Kill List sits astride a lot of genre lines. But this turns out to be a strength, not a weakness. Though the far-out ending will doubtless have some viewers shaking their heads, Kill List's rawness, a carefully built tone of simmering menace, black humour and engrossing performances ensure that director Ben Wheatley (Down Terrace) remains a talent to watch.

The setting is a gloomy present day Sheffield, where we see former soldier and husband Jay (Neil Maskell) clearly struggling to keep his household afloat. Though Jay gets on well with his stepson, his Scandinavian wife Shel (MyAnna Buring) is exasperated that he hasn't worked in months. Amid the depressingly familiar and predictable household arguments over money and chores, there are also suggestions (such as the blackly funny suicide bombing bedtime story as Jay tucks in his son) that Jay may be suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome following the horrific events he may have witnessed on tour in Iraq. This house is clearly a powder keg.

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Tensions continue to rise as Jay's Irish former war-buddy Gal (Michael Smiley) and his mysterious new girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer) arrive for a dinner party. In a savage dinner scene, Jay explodes when the conversation, with painful inevitability, turns to the subject of his tour of duty and present-day lack of employment. In the aftermath of the blow-up, Gal takes Jay aside and proposes that they both team up once again and take on a series of well-paid contract ' jobs'.

With nothing left to grasp at, Jay reluctantly agrees, though the look on his face suggests deep down he suspects this cannot end well (there are hints he may have worked with Gal on this job before). As the two men come to their understanding, Fiona, alone in the upstairs bathroom, carves a mysterious symbol into the back of the wall mirror. This bizarre act seems to come out of nowhere, and is the first hint of the dark and possibly supernatural undertones to the story.

What the contract jobs involve, we soon learn, are a series of assassinations. The targets seem to have no connection to each other, or any significance in the wider world. The target packages are given to Jay and Gal by a series of bland, men-in-black types in colourless hotel dining lounges. This is hit work of the most unglamorous kind - a series of road trips under grey skies, to equally grey cheap motels, followed by sitting for hours in hired cars watching targets who appear to be on nobody's radar. Their first target is a priest, not that that causes Jay much hesitation. In fact hesitation appears to be the last thing on Jay's mind, as he grows more and more violent and determined as they work their way through the target list. Soon Jay has pulled the two of them 'off-target', as his desire to know who it is they are killing leads him to investigate the background of one of their targets, with shockingly violent results.

Shot with a rough and ready feel in suitably grim locations, with two excellent lead performances that effortlessly convey the years that have built a friendship, Kill List manages to blend its study of friendship, masculinity, violence and family with a hitman road movie wrapped inside a horror mystery. This is quite some achievement.

Maskell and Smiley are a treat to watch at all times and perfectly complement each other. Smiley gets some killer lines as the more cocky and laidback of the two, but Maskell effectively gives Jay a tightly wound energy that you fear might burst out at any minute, but also brings sympathetic shades to a character that easily could have appeared as a violent thug. The on-screen violence is extreme, but never without consequences or context and is effectively used to break up the long stretches of quiet road-trip moments that precede it whilst hinting at the greater horror to come.

Wheatley also allows the tension to be relieved with some blackly funny moments, even as the violence reaches its peak. Perhaps it was too much to ask for Wheatley to wrap this journey up in an equally satisfying final 20 minutes, but this can be forgiven for the excellent ride.

Reviewed on: 25 Aug 2011
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A hitman's moral compass becomes badly skewed.
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