FrightFest 2011 Review: Kill List

Posted on August 30, 2011 by Ben 1 Comment

Kill List (2011)
Directed by: Ben Wheatley
Starring: Neil Maskell, Michael Smiley, MyAnna Buring
Review by: Ben Bussey

Contract killer Jay (Maskell) hasn’t worked in months. He lives comfortably with his wife (Buring) and their son, but the debts are starting to pile up, not to mention the marital tensions. Anxious to avoid taking on a job after a bad experience on his last one, Jay resists any offers until the problems at home reach breaking point. Seeing no alternative, he accepts an offer from his best friend and business partner Gal (Smiley). The client is enigmatic; the contract is for three deaths. But it soon transpires that this is not the sort of job Jay and Gal are used to, which threatens to push them way beyond their comfort zone and into some very dark and dangerous places indeed, both figuratively and literally.

Kill List premiered on Sunday 28th August at FrightFest; i.e. almost 48 hours before this review came online. During the festival I’ve been doing my best to get reviews of the most notable films up as soon as possible, but in this instance I’ve held back just a little, and there’s a reason for this. When writing up a film within hours of seeing it, there’s always the danger of rushing out a gut reaction that isn’t necessarily the most level-headed response, and I think if I’d rushed this one out straight away that’s what you’d be reading now. See, here’s the thing; the problem I’ve had with Kill List isn’t so much to do with the film itself as the way it was sold to us at FrightFest. As the weekend’s sole Total Film-sponsored screening it was clearly marked out as a festival highlight, and given a gushing introduction from Total Film’s Jamie Graham, promising something which would rock us to the core. However, by the time the end credits rolled, I for one was distinctly underwhelmed. This gave way to annoyance. I’ve already gone and expressed that annoyance on Twitter, and I gather (in turn) I’ve rather annoyed director Ben Wheatley in doing so. I hardly think that should weigh too heavily on Wheatley’s mind right now, however, given the huge amount of praise the film is gathering elsewhere. Many are declaring Kill List not only the best film of FrightFest 2011, but also the best British film of recent years.

And here, once more, is the thing: Kill List deserves praise, as does Wheatley, and his cast. It is a very well made film indeed, boasting powerful performances, and a brilliantly realised naturalistic atmosphere that shifts organically from humour to melancholy to aggression to dread and beyond. It should almost certainly mark out Ben Wheatley as one of Britain’s most notable genre directors, and hopefully bodes well for the future of actors Neil Maskell, Michael Smiley and MyAnna Buring as well.

But is it the next British horror masterpiece? In this writer’s humble opinion, no.

One of Kill List’s key strengths, as others have rightly argued, is that it makes a pointed effort to break with convention. To hear the premise – world-weary hit man takes on one last job that goes wrong – you’d be forgiven for anticipating something a bit corny, but nothing could be further from the truth. Shooting in an almost guerilla, fly-on-the-wall style, Wheatley shows the world of these assassins in as realistic a fashion as possible, which naturally includes an emphasis on the mundane; signing in and out of hotels and the like. The cast are credited as contributing additional dialogue, and in the Q&A they confirmed that while the script was followed closely there was a fair amount of improv involved, which comes as little surprise. Maskell, Smiley and Buring all give phenomenal performances, entirely convincing as people who share history, and this goes some way to selling the overall premise as real. Dead Man’s Shoes is a good point of reference to the kind of vibe we get.

However, this verisimilitude is stretched pretty thin by the final reel. I’m not about to give spoilers, but the narrative goes to some bizarre places that might not be anticipated; then again, a straight hit man movie wouldn’t be too likely a candidate for FrightFest. It would seem the intent is for the overlying naturalism to be maintained once things go off the map, but to my mind this was not the case. I respect that this is a film striving to surprise and confound, but I couldn’t help but feel this ultimate outlandishness only served to undermine that which had gone before.

Then there is what I consider (and I know I am not alone in this) Kill List’s biggest problem of all; the climax. Once again I’m not about to give anything away, suffice to say that the ending of Kill List is borderline identical to that of a certain other notorious horror film of recent years. I gather from comments made since that the similarity is entirely accidental, and that Wheatley has not even seen the film in question. Now, I appreciate that filmmakers have budgets and deadlines to adhere to, and understand that such unconscious coincidences can occur, but – as the saying goes – ignorance is not an excuse. Kill List is screening at FrightFest. The film in question is most certainly not unknown to the FrightFest crew. FrightFest themselves have been doing plenty to help promote the film in recent months, as have Total Film. I find it very hard to believe that in all that time no-one involved with Kill List on any level has failed to notice the similarity, which is immediately apparent. If your film is intended to subvert expectations you need to know what those expectations are, and if you’re aiming it at genre afficionados you’d better make damn sure you’re up to speed on the genre yourself. All this considered, I find it very odd indeed that it seems to be the ending which is garnering Kill List the most praise, with many declaring it utterly unexpected and devestating. It might have been so, had it not already been done elsewhere.

Still, none of this should be taken to imply that Kill List is not a film worth seeing. It is not the greatest British film in years; it is not an utterly unpredictable, genre-twisting masterpiece. But it is without question a very good film, and that should be more than enough; it’s a great deal more than most.


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One comment

  • Joe Rich says:

    Nice review.

    !!!!!!!!!!!SPOILER ALERT !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Seems like that ending might also be inspired by that flashback in the Usual Suspects featuring the young Keyser Soze and his actions vis a vis his family after the Hungarians have violated them…

    Perhaps the greatest trick Mr Wheatley ever pulled is pretending his ending didn’t already exist

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