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Kill List (2011)
Director: Ben Wheatley

review by Jim Steel

The impact of this British-made contemporary shocker will lessen as time goes on and its reputation grows. Suffice to say, it is one of the best films of 2011. It is also a very brutal, horrific and claustrophobic film. The violence is not unrelenting, but when it comes it pulls no punches. Filmed in Sheffield and the surrounding Yorkshire countryside, the acting is universally superb, the script and improvised dialogue is note-perfect. It is not perfect; the final section, which would have be the highlight of many a lesser film, can't help but remind even a casual genre fan of several similar films.

It ticks all the boxes for a thriller but it is, in essence, a horror film, and that much is made clear from the opening credits. If you haven't seen it, I recommend you stop reading this review now and watch it for although I will do my utmost to preserve its integrity, some of what I am about to write will erode its impact for anyone who is new to it.

It plays out in the conventional three-part Aristotelian setup, but each part also represents a new level of conceptual awareness. Each one is so carefully presented that you are aware within seconds that the film has moved on to a new phase. The first part sees Jay (Neil Maskell) interacting with his family and hosting a dinner party for a couple of friends. Jay is an ex-soldier who hasn't worked for a while and is suffering from slow-burning post-traumatic shock. He gobbles pain-killers and worries about their situation. His wife, Shel (MyAnna Buring) is ex-army as well, although in her case it was the Swedish army which has left her in a much better state of mind. They love each other, but they argue a lot. They also have a wonderful son (Harry Simpson), who is possibly the only true innocent in this film, and a sterile, new-build house.

The dinner party is not an unqualified success - at times Jay and Shel go at it like a common-variety Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf - but everyone manages to drink their way through the problems by the end. Gal (Michael Smiley) is the male guest and has obviously been a close friend of Jay's for a long time; nothing either of them does comes as a surprise to the other. Gal's new girlfriend is Fiona (Emma Fryer). While not as conventionally pretty as Shel (her face seems to be composed entirely of a striking combination of angles and eyes), it is quite obvious that Gal is punching above his weight with her. Gal, a witty Irishman, has a lived-in, beaten face and looks as if he should pay more attention to his personal hygiene.

It comes as no surprise to anyone when she chucks him the following day. But the party itself, even when it's going well, is uncomfortable if compelling viewing. Gal, displaying his first touch of latent religiosity, snaps at Fiona when she suggests that the two sides of the Irish conflict worship the same religion. Of course they don't, says Gal. Both Gal and Fiona are, of course, right in their own way but it doesn't matter. Jay and Shel have no religion, and Shel is militant in her atheism. Fiona, despite her ignorance of Christianity, later shows that she is just as superstitious in other ways. Other subjects are broached during the evening but this is the important one; the film's main theme concerns the utter futility of religion. The world of Kill List is a thoroughly nihilistic one.

Then Gal persuades Jay to go back to work and the film moves into its second phase. It will be a rare viewer indeed who doesn't know by now that they are hit-men. Shel is also perfectly aware of what her husband does for a living but asks no questions. She likes her suburban lifestyle. Gal has arranged a meeting with a customer (a creepy Struan Rodger) and the two men go to a hotel to set up the deal. They are given money and a hit list, and the rest of the middle part is a well executed thriller, if you'll pardon the pun, and is filmmaking at its peak. Jay and Gal move from soulless hotel to soulless hotel, travelling through bleak and empty cityscapes. Through it all runs an oppressive soundtrack that sounds like it was written by Stockhausen and produced by Martin Hannett.

The first target turns out to be a priest, which disturbs Gal. They follow the priest to his new-build church with its thin congregation that is older than the building. There is no feeling of an established tradition here except when the priest unwittingly steps outside for a last cigarette and then symbolically extinguishes some candles. It's the kind of trick that could very easily have looked artificial if it had been done wrongly.

The next target seems to come from the opposite end of the moral spectrum. Jay and Gal witness something on the man's computer that manages to shock both of them. This tips Jay over the edge and results in a horrific torture scene with a did-I-really-see-that? climax. More killings follow as Jay starts to lose his objectivity. His stress levels, needless to say, don't abate and result in a very peculiar meeting with a doctor that at first seems like a return to normal society but take a distinct twist towards the weird. The doctor shows no interest in Jay's wounded hand and instead tries to treat him for stress by insisting on an existential viewpoint. Kill List is packed with disturbing little gems like this.

The climax of the film is the weakest part, if only because we know where we are. It is a very familiar place. I will resist saying too much about it in order to preserve the surprise for anyone with fresh eyes, but I will say that it is not dull. No one will turn it off. And for people who have already seen it, here's a little nugget: the army trains people to run towards the shooters when ambushed, and Kill List contains a very good demonstration of why that is a good idea.

Mention must be made of flaws. The climax, of course, has already been dealt with. There is also a protracted scene in a hotel when Jay has a badly-cut hand and they worry about how to get him out past reception. Has the man no pockets? But the flaws are minor. This is the Get Carter for today's generation.

Kill List

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