A little while ago, I was lucky enough to attend a British film festival designed to find foreign distributors for British films. While only a few of the festival’s films showed any promise, what they all demonstrated was the relative ease with which British thrillers were able to secure funding. Jean-luc Goddard once said that all you needed to make a film is a girl and a gun and low-budget British filmmakers seemed to be proving exactly that. Over the last couple of years, this financial trend has blossomed into a full-scale British genre revival including such works of psychological tension as J Blakeson’s The Disappearance of Alice Creed (2009), Matthew Hope’s The Veteran (2011) and Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011). All of these films speak to the darkness of the human soul with a style and grace that elevate them above predictable exploitation narratives into something altogether more interesting. Ben Wheatley’s Kill List is yet further proof of the intellectual vibrancy of the British thriller, it is one of the most effective films I have seen this year.
Wheatley began his feature-length directorial career with the micro-budgeted crime film Down Terrace (2009). Grounded in dysfunctional human psychology, Down Terrace blurred the line between genre and traditional drama by embedding its narrative in a seemingly banal working-class environment. Wheatley’s desire to ground his films in the mundane details of everyday life continues with Kill List. Kill List opens by introducing us to Jay (Neil Maskell), a working-class man enjoying a comfortable middle-class life with his son and beautiful Swedish wife Shel (MyAnna Buring). Claiming to be suffering from back pain, Jay has not worked for eight months and the couple are now running in to the sorts of financial difficulties that put strains on even the most loving of marriages. Aware that Jay may not be completely ‘ready’ to go back to work, Shel invites Jay’s old partner Gal (Michael Smiley) over for dinner in the hope of luring her husband from retirement.
Having painted a scene of mundane domesticity in beautifully vibrant colour, Wheatley then sets about filling in the shadows. When Gal’s date for the evening pops to the loo, she turns the mirror over and carves a strange rune into the back of it. Meanwhile, Gal and Jay chat about the old days in evasive terms until one of them pulls out an assault rifle. Clearly, Jay and Gal’s mundane lower-middle class existence is supported thanks to a decidedly unusual career. The oddness of the boys’ day job is made all the more clear in an extraordinary sequence that transforms a mundane business meeting into an occult rite by having the boys sign their acceptance of the contract in blood. From there, the film becomes progressively more and more weird, and more and more disturbing.
As in Down Terrace, Wheatley breaks the action down into chapters by filling the screen with text. Thus, the first hit on the kill list is ‘The Priest’ and then we move on to ‘The Librarian’ and ‘The M.P.’ before concluding with ‘The Hunchback’. Ostensibly quite a crude piece of meta-narration, these inter-titles serve not only to anchor the narrative as the film’s narrative structures begin to fray, they also serve to heighten the sense of unreality surrounding Jay’s working life. What kind of professional to-do list features hunchbacks, priests and members of parliament? The further the film progresses, the more the fantastical encroaches upon the lives of the characters and the more the characters begin to crack under pressure with cinematography, sound-design and narrative working in unison to present a powerful and psychotropic voyage into the outer darkness.
Looking at the critical coverage this film has received, it is clear that critics have struggled to pin down the argument behind Kill List. Though beautifully realised and almost insanely tense, the film’s profligate use of familiar themes and images make interpreting it something of an uphill battle. Is the film about Jay’s nervous breakdown (fore-shadowed by early trips to the supermarket and the doctor)? Is it a tale of morality set against an ink-black British underworld filled with mercurial figures? Or is it simply a beautifully made thriller that borrows from the crime and horror genres to produce a cinematic experience that pushes all of the audience’s buttons at once? Obviously, Kill List is all of these things (and none) but my impression was of a film that ventures onto the same territory as the work of Thomas Ligotti.
Thomas Ligotti is one of the finest American horror writers of the last fifty years. Unfairly overshadowed by ancestors such as Lovecraft and more commercial contemporaries such as Stephen King, Ligotti’s collections of short fiction are seldom in print and seldom easy to write about. However, one of the recurring motifs in Ligotti’s work is the horror of the workplace. Short stories such as “The Town Manager” and “Our Temporary Supervisor” as well as longer pieces such as the novella My Work is Not Yet Done, reflect upon the surreal brutality of an institution that consumes most of your waking life whilst humiliating and dehumanising you from dawn till dusk. Kill List vocalises the same sense of surreal disconnection as the work of Ligotti; Jay is called upon to carry out tasks that he does not comprehend (his employer calls him “a cog”) and these tasks carry a heavy psychological burden. Ideally, Jay would not have to work at all but in order to feed his family and keep them in the style to which they have become accustomed, Jay must return to work and do what it is that he has to do. Even when Jay wants to quit and go home, work follows him to his door. There is simply no escaping the workplace. The film’s final denouement offers Jay the possibility of escape but makes it abundantly clear what price he will be expected to pay for his freedom.
Kill List’s denouement encompasses all of the strengths and weaknesses of Wheatley’s film: beautifully shot and powerfully scored, Kill List’s final scenes are a master class in pure cinematic tension. However, the impressionistic quality of the direction and the embarrassment of symbolic riches also create a distinct sense of directorial profligacy. Rather than restrain himself and pin Jay’s experiences down to a singular precise meaning, Wheatley ends his film in the broadest way imaginable: we know that Jay is unhappy, we know that his unhappiness is linked to issues of sanity, morality and family but beyond that the film’s emotional and psychological content is vague and elusive. Kill List makes its point with considerable style and power but as the smoke clears and the credits roll, it is by no means clear that that point might have been.