Ben Wheatley’s Kill List is truly a scary film. It’s not an outright horror movie in the true sense , but with its realistic depictions of murder and the weight that goes along with it, the film is an audacious, often shocking experience that simply can’t be ignored or soon forgotten.
The film follows two average-looking men, one of whom has a wife and son and just returned from war in Kiev. They have been hired as contract killers by a mysterious client to kill a list of people one by one, without asking any questions. But the family man of the two starts to spiral out of control with each killing as he struggles to deal with his past as well as the rising stakes of their employment.
Wheatley’s previous film was the unusual Down Terrace, which took the idea of murder and made it commonplace within the household of a crime family trying to figure out who may have ratted on them to the police. With Kill List, Wheatley takes the techniques utilized in that film (notably, sudden cuts to black in the middle of a scene only to cut back to it a few seconds later) and perfects them here.
He masterfully builds the tension slowly throughout the film, never compromising his vision to tell a truthful and realistic tale of two hitman and what it really would be like to carry out their job. The highly authentic-sounding dialogue, alongside credible performances from the two leads Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley, doesn’t exactly hurt matters, giving it an all-encompassing sense of reality and urgency you just don’t see that often.
Wheatley also conjures a superb mix of jet-black humour, dead-serious scenes of extreme violence, and family drama. Even apart from the main contract killing plot (which the film more than takes its time to get on with), the domestic scenes involving Jay and his wife are believable and fascinating and thus in the slow build-up to the two men receiving the eponymous Kill List, and any lulls in between, it’s never boring or uninteresting.
There’s a sort-of twist in the last half hour of the film which might have been downright silly, ultimately derailing the film, if in the wrong hands. But through the use of subtle hints to what’s ultimately to come for these characters, and a generally no-apologies attitude once we reach that point, Wheatley more than makes it convincing within context, even if it would sound quite ridiculous on paper. The last word on that aspect: just don’t let anyone tell you the twist beforehand.
Kill List deserves points right off the bat for sheer originality within a well-trodden crime genre, adding a dash of horror to an otherwise fairly straightforward plot. Wheatley’s uncompromising vision of violence as a way of life is refreshingly bold and memorable, and just when you think it’s ultimately going to go one way it takes a shocking turn and becomes something else, quite brilliant, entirely. I have no problem calling this one of the best films of the year thus far.