My attention was brought to this film during the research and preparation for my earlier article, Top 10 American folk horror stories. I had heard (and was intrigued by) of Ben Wheatley before, mostly from his well-reviewed film A Field in England (2013), so when I saw that Wheatley’s Kill List (2011) was the most heavily recommended among reader suggestions on the BFI’s list of 10 great British rural horror films, I had to give it a go.
Essentially Wheatley’s film is a muddle of genres. It’s at once a gritty urban crime film and a folk horror in the tradition of The Wicker Man (1973). The story follows a British soldier named Jay who, returned home from a horrific time in Kiev, becomes a hit man with fellow friend Gal. Jay’s mind becomes increasingly unravelled as he starts to tick names off of his “kill list,” and as a conspiracy begins to emerge. His family and fellow hitman become concerned when he starts to lose control and becomes determined to end the conspiracy laid out in front of him.
Many plot details – including the hints of some sort of Satanic cult, child sacrifice, and a conspicuous videotape – are shared with Nic Pizzolatto’s television show True Detective (2014). It makes me wonder whether Pizzolatto has seen Kill List. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had. Whilst the two share similarities in plot, both have distinct flavours. Whereas Pizzolatto’s show melds itself into the southern gothic, Kill List has more in common with Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The long tracking shots and focus on a hidden, tortured psychology are reminiscent of Kubrick’s film, and it’s clear that Kubrick’s shadow falls heavy on Wheatley. Fortunately Wheatley feels up the challenge and provides one of the best chillers in recent British cinema.
Also notable is the film’s use of violence. As Jay begins his mission of retribution upon discovering a child pornography ring, he begins to loose it. Whereas Gal would prefer something quick and clean, Jay delights in savagely killing those responsible. He claims, in a scene in which he burns the bodies and evidence, that they deserved it; but I wonder if that is really his motivation. His experiences in Kiev loom over the film’s events. Jay is a man who has been marked by violence, and cannot help but succumb to it’s release.
Really, it’s the last half-hour of the film that makes it worth viewing. I was wondering slightly where the film was going, but the pieces really come together and the deck of cards fall once Jay discovers the cult. In many ways the film, whilst holding its own, couldn’t exist without its predecessor The Wicker Man. The sense that the finale is fated and that Jay and Gal never had any other options is inescapable. And as they are hunted through the forests and tunnels of their target’s estate home, you can’t help but let the dread flow over you.
Particular highlights of the film remain the naturalistic screenplay / dialogue and performances. Neil Maskell as Jay and Michael Smiley as Gal (Tyres from Spaced?!) shine. Their deep friendship is at moments affecting and others volatile. They share a lot of chemistry and it really shows on screen. MyAnna Buring as Jay’s wife Shel is also a highlight. Whilst perhaps less interesting due to a lesser involvement in the main events of the film, she is captivating as Jay’s much concerned wife.
Ultimately I’m not exactly sure what Wheatley is saying, or if he is saying anything at all. I think that’s OK, though. This film is unashamedly a genre picture. Wheatley proves himself to be a modern master of suspense as he melds the genres of the hitman thriller with the British tradition of folk horror together seamlessly. The twists and turns afforded by the twists in genre and convention will keep all viewers on the edge of their seat.
One thought remains though. Perhaps the most evil character in the film isn’t Jay or his employers or the cult-members, but Shel. How can she sleep at night knowing her luxury is paid for with the lives of others? The suspicious morality of these characters, especially and Gal who seem a bit more down-to-earth than Jay, is what disturbs me the most. They are all lost in the drama of the story, and ultimately none can escape it.
Wheatley goes for the throat with Kill List, and the result is nothing less than horrifying. A solid genre picture and a great continuation of the British folk horror cycle.