Monday, April 02, 2012

The List is Death

I'm at something of a loss when it comes to cataloging my reaction to Kill List (2011, directed by Ben Wheatley). I can't actually point to any individual element of the film and say: "that scene doesn't work, that performance is bad, that shot is clumsy". That's because it's impeccably well made. Damnably well made. And yet, I walked out of the theater feeling drained and unhappy. More, I'm sure that that's a feeling that the makers of Kill List intend to evoke, so it's hard for me to grouse about a film that actually accomplishes what it sets out to do. I mean, horror movies--good horror movies, anyway--are not in the business of reassuring the audience. Kill List takes this to heart: this is as effective a "feel bad" movie as you're likely to find.

Note, from here on out, there be spoilers.

The film follows a pair of hit men, Jay and Gal, on a new assignment. This is the first new assignment that they've taken on since their last assignment a year ago went spectacularly bad. Jay has been nursing the failure in the months since. It's putting a strain on his marriage to ex-soldier, Shel, who is sick of him moping around the house and contributing nothing to the family finances. Jay and Shel have a son they both dote on. After a particularly tense dinner party, Jay decides to accept the new assignment that Gal brings to him and the two head off to kill the people on a list provided by their mysterious client. There's something "off" about the people they kill. The list provides the film with chapter headings at this point, describing what each of them does (0r is, as the case may be): The Priest, The Librarian, the M.P., etc. When they get around to assassinating the first victim in his office, he thanks them. That's weird. The second victim does much the same thing. The third victim, however, is surrounded by what appears to be a pagan cult, and suddenly, the film shifts its mood dramatically. What has to this point been a kitchen sink crime film turns into a supernatural horror film. The finale of the film is a disorienting jumble of an epistemological mind fuck.

I mention that this film's mood is that of a kitchen sink crime film, but that's misleading, because it has three distinct movements. In the first movement, we don't really know what Jay does for a living as he and his wife argue. At the outset, and for a goodly part of its running time, this is a domestic drama with deep wells of economic unease. These scenes are played with prickly intensity by Neil Maskell and MyAnna Buring. At this point, the violence in the film is purely a psychic kind of violence, with two people laying bare their wounded egos for each other. The second part of the film is a kind of nuts and bolts crime film. There are interesting details here. I like the drop cloth our pair of hit men lay out for their first victim. I also like their need to understand why they're killing their victims, even if this knowledge ultimately leads down the rabbit hole. There's a buddy film aspect to this section of the film that makes it seem familiar, though even in the first section of the film, it's already dropping hints as to the awful things at the end.

The end of the film doesn't come entirely out of left field, but it doesn't sit well with the other two movements of the film either. This part of the film puts a new coat of paint on Britain's native pagan cults, a la The Wicker Man or (significantly) Hot Fuzz, though without either film's antic sense of the absurdity of it all. Kill List, by contrast, is deadly serious about both the violence done by its cult, and the nature of the sacrifice they demand. This last part is the film's most puzzling element, because the film's final image will send the audience to the parking lot wondering what the hell they just saw. I know that's how I felt. It's a disturbing, depressing ending, one that isn't really presaged by the film that comes before it, but I won't deny that it has a certain brute force impact.

Anyway, as I say, I can't really fault the filmmaking, though I might perhaps grouse about the way it takes liberties with the audience's credulity near the end. It's just...there's something about the film that rubs me the wrong way, and I'll be damned if I can put a finger on it. Maybe it's the sheer joylessness of it. Yeah, it's well made, but it's not visually dynamic. The visuals have a kind of dreary, north of England feeling. It's a gray world filled with anonymous hotel rooms and gray men doing gray work. The camera is mostly handheld, or stationary, as if the filmmakers are filming a documentary. Only one shot in the entire film really sticks in my mind, but it's almost a gimme for any competent director of horror movies. I'm sure that all of this is intentional and it certainly contributes to the malaise the film generates, but it doesn't make for much in the way of fun. Maybe that's what I miss. The sense of tired apocalypse in Kill List is dire. There's no manic glee or abject horror at the thought of a world spinning into chaos, just a resigned acceptance.


Liam Underwood said...

Great review! I watched this film yesterday and came away with the exact same feeling. Personally, I wish the third act had been a little better signposted - nothing too obvious, but at least something. For me I think the film would have been stronger if it was revealed Shel had been on the kill list, but knowing he wouldn't do it willingly he was manipulated into it. That's just me grasping for some semblance of sense though.

I did leave the film with an empty sense of bewilderment, finding myself retracing the plot in my head to see if there was anything I'd overlooked. It just felt like there was something missing...

Anyway, most reviews I've read have been pouring adoration on this film, it was refreshing to read something more in tune with how I felt coming away!

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Liam. Welcome.

It's always awkward being an outlier, but I'm to a point where I don't care much anymore. I AM happy when other people have the same experience I have and come forward with it, though, because it stops me from second guessing myself. I had that kind of experience with Take Shelter, for example. At the time I saw it, I had seen nothing but raves, and was bewildered by the movie I saw when placed in that context. It was only later, once the film hit DVD, that I started seeing reviews that jibe with my own experience. Anyway, thanks for stopping by.