Directed by: Ben Wheatley
Countries & Regions: United Kingdom
Studio: Studio Canal
Length: 91 mins
Region: Region 2
Released: 26 December 2011
Cat No: OPTD2273
Screen ratio 1:2.35
Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Digital 2.0
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Ben Wheatley directs this dark British thriller/horror starring Neil Maskell. Former soldier Jay (Maskell) works alongside his partner... Read More
Ben Wheatley's Kill List has been enjoying acclaim from all quarters - all deserved. But it has antecedents. To some degree, Sean Hogan's The Devil's Business (2011) was something of a canny multiple synthesis: the tough crime drama married to the Pinteresque character study/chamber piece. Given that one of Britain's leading playwrights was so adept at minatory wordplay (with an ever-present threat of violence - in actuality, rarely delivered), it was hardly surprising that younger filmmakers with an ear for dialogue (which, fortunately, seems to be a great many of the new breed) would customise the Pinter template to their own ends.
The most impressive use of this model (utilised within the context of a crime/horror hybrid) is Wheatley's Kill List. In 2009, the young writer/director, bristling with ambition, delivered a calling card movie with Down Terrace, a claustrophobic study (set largely in a cluttered house in Brighton) of twisted human behaviour that fused the mechanics of the crime thriller with quirky character observation à la Mike Leigh; the audience appears to be presented with a dark social comedy, but memories of Mike Leigh and company are summarily obliterated as the corpses begin to bloodily pile up. But if Ben Wheatley's fusion of different genres here is only fitfully successful, then his subsequent film was to prove a much more considerable achievement.
That film was the remarkable, edgy Kill List, which began to glean critical praise fairly early, via that most reliable of tried-and-tested methods: word-of-mouth. The extra authority and command of the film medium that Wheatley had gained since the hit-or-miss Down Terrace was immediately apparent here, although initially the spliced-together elements appear to consist once again of Pinteresque menace and the overfamiliar machinations of two hitmen (yes, again) attempting to carry out murders in the face of a growing, unspecified menace. More than in his previous film, Wheatley establishes a verisimilitude in his detailed portrayal of a very contemporary Britain, with an Iraq war veteran, Jay (mordantly played by Neil Maskell) living an unsatisfying life in an unprepossessing house with his wife and son. Jay is in desperate need of a lifeline (his debts are prodigious), and after a deeply uncomfortable dinner party (redolent once again, in its embarrassment, of Mike Leigh, as was Wheatley's earlier film), Jay decides to get the money he needs by taking on some contract killings with Gal (Michael Stanley) for a sinister figure played by Struan Rodger. Once again we have the odd couple relationship between two hitmen, although this is a much more sophisticated treatment of the theme than in previous films (the social realist director Ken Loach also appears to be an influence in the unsentimental treatment of the characters, and the non-linear editing creates a subtly destabilising effect). But then Wheatley takes the viewer by the throat (Kill List is spectacularly violent) and the film begins a slow and terrifying journey into a true heart of darkness, starting with a confrontation with a group of Christians in a restaurant which balances dark humour with a truly unsettling atmosphere. And as the two hapless protagonists come face-to-face with the horror that is at the end of their assignment (some distance from the opening scenario - we are now firmly in another genre), the shifting of gears between crime and horror is handled adroitly. What's more, this audacious mixture of themes does not (as often in the past) bring about a cancelling out of the most potent parts of both elements. And if this skilfulness were not enough, Wheatley manages to incorporate several trenchant points about modern society and its serviceable attitude to morality.