Reviewed by Kimberly Lindbergs

Produced by Claire Jones, Andy Starke, Katherine Butler, Hugo Heppell, and Robin Gutch; directed by Ben Wheatley; written by Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump; cinematography by Laurie Rose; production design by David Butterworth; edited by Robin Hill; costume design by Lance Milligan; music by Jim Williams; starring Neil Maskell, MyAnna Buring, Michael Smiley, Emma Fryer, and Struan Rodger. Color, 95 min. An IFC Films/IFC Midnight release.

While most modern horror films are marketed at teenagers, Kill List is made with adults in mind, and seasoned horror fans should find the ride particularly satisfying. It’s a film that defies expectations and relishes its ambiguity by playing fast and hard with genre tropes that we’ve all become much too familiar with. Director Ben Wheatley understands that real terror stems from our fear of the unknown and unexpected, so his film asks questions of its audience instead of answering them.

Kill List focuses on two protagonists, longtime friends and Iraq War veterans Jay and Gal, who now work as killers for hire. Although Jay is the designated hatchet man and prone to explosive acts of violence, he also has a childlike quality that’s oddly endearing. Jay’s married to a pretty Swede named Shel (also an ex-soldier) and the unconventional couple live in a secluded British suburb with their son and a pet cat. The family is held together by a love that runs so deep it’s barely noticeable on the surface but the strength of their union is diminishing. The couple regularly engages in ear-shattering screaming matches with the burden of the argument falling on Jay’s shoulders due to the fact that he hasn’t worked in eight months and relies on booze and painkillers to get through the day. But you quickly come to suspect that Jay is also suffering from undiagnosed posttraumatic stress linked to his violent past. Besides Jay’s experiences in the Iraq War, there are also numerous references to a hit job in Kiev that went horribly wrong. He may be a man on the brink of unraveling but Jay is extremely tender during his interactions with his young son and he never raises a finger to his aggressive wife who continually nags him over money concerns.

When his partner and ex-war buddy Gal suggests that they should take one last job in an effort to ease their financial woes, Jay agrees. After making a deal with some shady figures, the two men set out on a vicious ‘kill list’ operation, using a list of victims prepared by their mysterious employers. But with every murder they commit, the film grows increasingly bleak, until the darkness they’ve unleashed threatens to consume them as well as the audience.

The script by Wheatley and Amy Jump suggests that the protagonist’s military backgrounds are symptomatic of a society that takes orders, gets the job done, and doesn’t ask many questions. As Jay explains at one point after committing multiple murders, “It doesn’t feel wrong. They’re bad people. They deserve to suffer.” But what if he was being led down a false path of self-righteousness? If you’re willing to justify murder as an act of moral conscience, does that clear you of any crime and redeem you of any sin? These are just a couple of the questions Kill List asks while hinting that Jay’s odd ideas about right and wrong are deep-seated and stem from his fondness for the heroic legends of figures like King Arthur, which lend his military background a strange sort of validity. As the film progresses, Jay begins to act as if he’s on some kind of crusade, which his friend Gal rightly points out to the audience. Like the mystic Knights Templar in medieval times, Jay and Gal appear to be taking orders from a higher power and dishing out a kind of archaic justice that neither of them is fully aware of or inclined to contemplate.

The director allowed his cast to improvise much of the film’s dialogue, which lends the film a “kitchen-sink realism” that many have compared to the work of Mike Leigh, but I think Wheatley’s film has more in common with the darker work of Alan Clarke. The film’s two stars, Neil Maskell and Andy Smiley, are both good actors and their characters feel lived in. There’s an effortless naturalness to their performances that grounds the esoteric elements of this unconventional horror story in everyday life. Smiley is very charming even when he’s skinning a helpless rabbit, but I found Maskell’s portrayal of Jay particularly impressive due to the inner turmoil he was forced to convey. Jay’s character arc is far reaching and Maskell handles every curve ball he’s thrown with incredible skill.

Besides redefining genres, Wheatly’s film refuses to be pigeonholed by one particular style. He employs long shots, close-up, and cinéma-vérité techniques with lengthy transition scenes, so the screen remains black for surprisingly long periods of time. Robin Hill’s disjointed editing sets an uneasy mood and Jim Williams’s relentless and haunting score drives the film. One of the most effective elements in Ben Wheatley’s bag of tricks is the director’s masterful use of sound design to shape his film. Besides the effective soundtrack, Kill List is alive with unexpected thuds, hums, and whistles. A boiling teakettle seems to scream out in pain and shotguns sound like cannons discharging. It’s extremely disorientating and envelops the film in a thick fog of white noise.

Director Ben Wheatley’s first film was the unsettling crime drama Down Terrace and it has a lot in common with Kill List. Both films benefit from some exemplary performances and gut-wrenching finales, but Kill List is rooted in a long tradition of British horror and fantasy fiction written by authors such as M. R. James and Algernon Blackwood. These writers manipulated mythology by interweaving folklore traditions into their stories, which often took place in the countryside where rolling hills, ancient ruins, dense forests, and forgotten churchyards carried an element of menace and mystery. Many acclaimed British horror films—such as Curse of the Demon(1957), City of the Dead (1960), Burn, Witch, Burn! (1962), Blood On Satan’s Claw (1971), and The Wicker Man (1971)—have sprung from a similar source and they all seem to enjoy exploiting our age-old fear of strange, pagan death cults. Recently, films like Left Bank (2008), The Last Exorcism (2010), Black Death (2010), and Wake Wood (2011) have attempted to explore “folk horror” territory with varying degrees of success. Kill List trudges down this well-tread path, but it takes many unexpected turns and refuses to be easily defined by genre expectations. It’s a bleak family drama as well as an unsentimental crime thriller, but a macabre thread runs through the entire film signaling to observant viewers that they’re watching something uncanny and supernatural.

Some of the film’s most frightening scenes are linked to staggering moments of visceral violence that are likely to turn heads and stomachs. Kill List is about two hired killers and, while there are flashes of black humor that organically arise from the back-and-forth banter between Jay and Gal, director Wheatley never romanticizes the terrible work they do. The film’s shocks come in quick succession and they’re brutal and uncompromising. But there are also many subtle moments in Kill List that make it a rich and rewarding viewing experience. Rainbows linger in the sky, hovering over the protagonists like a gateway to another world, shadows form a menacing shape in the dancing light, and old photographs of ancient burial tombs promise death. But these flickering images are barely noticeable during a single viewing. If you blink or look away from the screen for a moment, you might miss them. Quick cuts and interweaving frames disorientate viewers. These techniques have been employed by many celebrated genre directors, including Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho, 1960), WIlliam Friedkin (The Exorcist, 1973), and Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now, 1973), indicating that Wheatley not only trusts his audience but also understands the visual language of horror cinema.

As Kill List moves towards its volatile conclusion, Jay is forced to see a doctor after a cut on his hand becomes infected and refuses to heal. The doctor doesn’t treat Jay with conventional medicine and instead offers him some words of advice, “The past is gone. The future is not yet here. There is only ever this moment.” Is the doctor simply reminding Jay to slow down and smell the flowers? Or is his warning a signpost for the audience indicating that Jay isn’t cognizant of time and place anymore? It’s quite possible that Kill List uses it’s ninety-five-minute running time to give shape to Jay’s nightmares while alluding to his impending madness. The film might also be a straightforward account of a hit man who finds himself caught up in a series of unusual circumstances leading to a baroque finalé. The film’s fractured narrative hints at both possibilities, so audiences will have to decide for themselves how much of Kill List is grounded in reality and how much of it is set in Jay’s troubled mind. Both conclusions provide the viewer with a lot to contemplate.

Modern horror films typically offer a few cheap thrills, a window into the fantastic and an escape from the drudgery of everyday life. But great horror films haunt viewers like the spectral phantoms they so often depict. They take unexpected turns and follow unmarked paths. They get under your skin and play tricks with your subconscious until they’ve worked their way into your nightmares. With Kill List, Wheatley has positioned himself as a transformative director willing to buck convention in order to reinvent the wheel. He’s made an extraordinary and original horror film that people will undoubtedly be talking about for a long time to come, and, in an era of genre remakes, reboots, and reimaginings, that’s no small feat.

Kimberly Lindbergs, a member of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists and a regular contributor to Turner Classic Movies, blogs atCinebeats.com.

Copyright © 2012 by Cineaste Magazine.