Stellar filmmaking can't save 'Kill List' from its own meaninglessness
Kill List IFC Films
Director: Ben Wheatley
Screenplay: Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump
Starring: Neil Maskell, Michael Smiley, MyAnna Buring, Emma Fryer, Struan Rodger and
Not rated / 1 hour, 35 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)
Kill List is a domestic drama that turns into a hitman drama that turns into a horror film, with
political and religious themes peppered throughout. You might think that such a concoction
would make for a messy film. If you do think that, you are absolutely correct.
I don't enjoy panning films whose craftsmanship and skill I admire. Writer/director Ben
Wheatley certainly has chops, and I'd rather just focus on that. But when he fashions such an
unwieldy mess as this, it's hard to ignore it.
As a domestic drama, Kill List builds a strong foundation, establishing the volatility of its central
character, Jay (Neil Maskell), and his wife, Shel (MyAnna Buring). Their relationship is heated,
and can shift rapidly between playful and hateful, their resentments toward one another capable
of bubbling over at any moment - even while having guests over for a dinner party.
Those guests are Jay's old friend and partner Gal (Michael Smiley) and his latest girlfriend,
Fiona (Emma Fryer). Both will play prominent roles as the film shifts into more diabolical
territory - Gal as he partners once again with Jay on what turns out to be a series of contract
killings, and Fiona as she begins to pop up in scenes and moments where she seemingly doesn't
belong. In fact, it's through her that we get our first hint that strange things are afoot - she does
something peculiar in a bathroom, something the film smartly allows to remain unexplained for
the time being.
Jay has been out of work for eight months now, a fact about which his wife never hesitates to
remind him. When he finally does get back to work, doing what he apparently does best, we get
an idea of just why he's been out of the game as long as he has. Let's just say he takes things
In a delightfully strange scene, we see Jay and Gal meet up with
their long-time "employer" - a character who would look right at home in a post-2001 Stanley
Kubrick film - to officially accept the job and, much to their surprise, do so with a blood oath.
And from there, the job begins, one assassination at a time.
They have no remorse for this, but then again, they're only killing people who have committed
unspeakable crimes. Problem is, once they've uncovered concrete evidence as to exactly what
crimes these men have committed, Jay becomes a bit of a loose cannon. Begins taking far too
much pleasure in his work. Makes a bit of a bloody mess. Alienates Gal, who refuses to work
with him again until being told, in no uncertain terms, that such a refusal would be signing his
own death warrant.
The opening half-hour or so of Kill List is mesmerizing, but its overall effect grows wearisome
the more it loses focus and descends, in its final reels, into a series of horror-movie cliches that
make little dramatic sense (which is defensible, in the right circumstances) and add up to
virtually nothing (which isn't). And the whole thing wouldn't be complete without an idiotic
shock ending that makes the entire film feel like a long exercise in nihilism.
With the kind of filmmaking on display here, it's easy to see why Kill List has been talked up so
much on the festival circuit and among some horror aficionados. While I share their admiration
for the performances and for Wheatley's skills behind the camera (there are some really fantastic
sequences in the middle of this narrative mess), I can't share any of that enthusiasm for the rest
of the film.
I'd be genuinely curious to hear someone give an impassioned defense of the ending, and to
explain to me why it's not a silly, cheap climax. If someone can put that in perspective, I'd be
happy to listen and willing to reconsider. Until then, I can't help but think of Kill List as
something of a farce that, by the end, at least, is trying far too hard to shock and/or disturb its