Kill List made a whole lot of noise in 2011 and into this year. I missed it at the Philly Film Festival, but was happy to be able to catch it on the big screen this week. As a heads up, this blog is going to definitely contain some-
Kill List, as I am far from the first to point out, is sort of the lesser cousin of The Wicker Man (not the LaBute/Cage collaboration). But that doesn’t really explore the whole of what The Kill List attempts. Where The Wicker Man is one straight genre the whole way through (oddly awesome hippie dancing scenes aside), Kill List is three distinct genres across its three acts. What starts as a talkie domestic dramady (or is that spelled dramedy?), turns to a violent thriller, turns to a supernatural horror flick.
Jay (Neil Maskell) is a hitman who, years after butchering a job that we hear about but never see or get concrete details, goes back into the business with his old pal Gal (Michael Smiley). Jay and his wife Shel (MyAnna Buring) have hit on rough times emotionally and economically, and it’s taking a toll on his mental state and his relationship with his wife and son. From acts 2-3, we follow Jay and Gal as they progressively murder a priest, a librarian and an MP, each of whom seem to recognize Jay. Jay gets increasingly more violent and unpredictable as their quest continues.
There’s good stuff in Kill List: the final 20 minutes (and we’ll get to that ending) are white-knuckle good and deliriously fun. Some of the suspense in here – the odd interactions that Jay has – is off-putting in a very nice way. The acting is good, and the score by Jim Williams, though frequently used at odd times, is effective.
There’s also not-so good stuff in Kill List. For all of the people who claim that Wheatley’s “naturalistic” dialogue works, there’s at least one (me) nay-sayer. The dialogue – frequently difficult to understand – was sometimes funny, but often-times boring and heavy-handed. The same is true of Wheatley’s jump-cut, flashback and forward style that dominates the first act. It’s a tired trick. The cinematography, though really increasing in visual flair by the end, is too flat for my tastes for the first 45 minutes.
The question with Kill List is, when is a left turn in a script an okay turn, and not unwarranted? How do you differentiate between originality and unpredictability (good) and poor screenwriting and unnecessarily loose plot connections (bad)? I lean more towards the latter interpretation for Kill List, but will certainly admit that there’s a beautifully orchestrated creep factor that plays out in the final several sequences.
Here’s the deal. Through various small plot points we eventually learn that Jay is being groomed by some cult to be their leader – perhaps their antichrist. This is all revealed in the end which is at once thrilling and confounding. There are multiple problems with this narrative:
For one, Wheatley relies heavily on uncommon knowledge to give clues. Sure, plenty of things happen that the uninformed viewer can and should recognize as part of the vaster conspiracy at play: Gal’s girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer), eventually revealed as a cult member, carves an odd symbol (the same symbol that is slowly and brazenly placed on-screen at the opening credits) in the back of Jay’s bathroom mirror while also placing something that looks suspiciously like the dead rabbit remains in Jay’s backyard into her shirt. She also smiles evilly while doing so, and we all know that evil smiles can only lead to very, very bad things.
But much of the rest of the cultish “grooming” relies on some knowledge of the occult. Jay eats the dead rabbit he finds in his backyard. Jay signs a contract in blood (this one’s a little more Faustian-obvious). Gal tells Jay that he had to shave his pubic hair after being with Fiona. Apparently these are all surefire signs that Lucifer is working his way into your daily life. Some of these played for me (the blood contract, while a bit over the top, gave me pause), others fell flat.
There are other problems. Wheatley at times chooses to sacrifice legitimate suspense and plot progression for creepy images that ultimately don’t add much. Consider a scene towards the middle of the second act where Jay sees Fiona from his hotel room. She waves to him. He slowly waves back (in a sequence that is echoed at the end). This serves to a) remind us that something weird is going on and b) remind us that Fiona is weird. But it’s non-narrative. Nothing happens because of this. It’s that moment in a film where the story stops so the director can say, ‘hey, if you weren’t paying attention, some pretty strange stuff is happening. Now let’s get back to the story.’
Jay has an odd visit with a doctor, who also seems to be related to the cult. In a Rosemary’s Baby this works because Rosemary is manipulated into going to the doctor, but in Kill List Jay just happens to pick that doctor. He asks where his regular guy is, a question which is ignored. The intention: we must take for granted that the cult is far-reaching. It’s weak.
But there’s weaker parts. The whole cult idea seems to be: Jay is violent. Make him more violent until he becomes almost impossibly brutal. Only then can he be king of our club (complete with an awesome straw hat). I buy this – though I’d buy it more if there were some extra lead-in. For example, maybe Gal kills one of the targets to the cult’s chagrin (ie Jay was supposed to do the killing) and suddenly there’s a wrench in the plan – does this mean they need to get rid of Gal? Either way, any kind of subtly expository obstacle as such would have been helpful.
But the real beef is still to come. In the last final minutes Jay kills Gal in a mercy killing as they try to escape from the cult. The cult then invades his home. Jay is forced to knife-fight with “the hunchback” – a crippled figure covered in a sheet. Jay easily wins and brutally stabs the hunchback, only to learn that it was really his wife with her son on his back. He just killed his family. Jay gets crowned. End film.
Okay, so that’s pretty crazy (and also apparently pretty close to the end of A Serbian Film). It’s a shocking end, for sure but, all of my other problems aside, it’s still a bit weak. Is the cult just satisfied with Jay’s killing anyone? As perverse as this sounds, shouldn’t they want Jay to kill Gal, his wife and son out of hatred and not out of mercy and out of blindness? The whole intention, up to the third act, seems to be that Jay will work himself into such a rage that he’ll kill a priest with a bullet to the head, a librarian with a hammer, and a man by slamming his face into a wall. Meaning – Jay is not only getting more violent, but he’s doing it of his own accord and face-to-face. The last of the kill list – Gal, Shel and his son – don’t add up to that same equation. If Jay knew that Shel and his son were under the sheet but still did it…then it would make sense. If Gal could have survived but Jay killed him anyway…then I’d buy it.
The main point: it’s inconsistent. There are counter-arguments of course, but it’s less the left-field ending that bothered me, as that the ending was placed squarely in left field by a strong premise thinly presented.
I don’t have much to say about Wheatley’s 2009 effort, except that it starts as slowly as Kill List, ultimately makes more narrative sense, and is in the end far less interesting.
A crime family tries to find out who ratted on them. But the crime family is a domestic, pot-smoking father/mother/son combination, who look more like college professors and students than lethal criminals.
Here, Wheatley’s naturalistic dialogue works much better – mostly because it’s legitimately funny, but also because, unlike in Kill List, it’s the main attraction. Also as with Kill List, the film takes a quick genre turn in the second act, but then maintains its position as Shallow Grave-like comedy/thriller.
There are some nice turns by Harrison Ford-lookalike Robert Hill, playing the crime boss Bill, who really just wants to smoke pot and play guitar, and his son Karl (Robin Hill). Both of whom manage to work a good bit of nonchalance and subdued (less so in Karl’s case) anger into their performances. A nice script-turn of a (semi) surprise pregnancy keeps the narrative as much a dysfunctional family analogy as true mob-violent film.