Cast: Neil Maskell, Michael Smiley, MyAnna Buring, Emma Fryer, Struan Rodger, Mark Kempner
Running time: 95mins
The lowdown: The best British thriller since Dead Man’s Shoes, Kill List is heart-stopping in its shocks and as difficult to pin down as a moving target. Part hitman thriller, domestic drama and horror film, it’s hugely ambitious and sticks Ben Wheatley right alongside such established genre masters as Danny Boyle and Neil Marshall. But be warned, although there are laughs to be had, they’re of the darkest variety and it’s the terror and incredible violence that haunts your thoughts long after the stark end credits. Breathtaking, but it’s worth having a shot of something strong before viewing.
The full verdict: British cinema works best when filmmakers go for big ideas rather than big budgets and Kill List is a salutary lesson for aspiring filmmakers that magic can be woven with the most modest means (well, half a million quid here).
Mixing the domestic realism of Alan Clarke and Shane Meadows with the violence and paranoia of film noir classics The Killers and Point Blank, it’s also a British horror movie up there with The Wicker Man, The Witchfinder General and The Blood on Satan’s Claw in evoking how alien and terrifying rural Britain can be.
Jay (Maskell) is ex-army, traumatised by alluded to events in Iraq and Kiev, spending beyond his means and in a stormy marriage with his ex-Swedish army wife Shel (Burning).
After eight months of not working, the need to support Shel and his son puts Jay back on the road with Gal (Smiley, Tyres from Spaced), having accepted a contract from a shadowy organisation to kill a select group of people.
Comforting himself with the rationale that “they’re bad people, they should suffer” Jay quickly rediscovers the killer inside himself, but who’s really controlling the situation here?
Director Wheatley and his co-writer (and wife) Amy Jump delight in keeping the audience off-balance – a dinner party scene expertly shifts from polite chat to domestic meltdown, and mysterious events early on feed a fear that things are going to get very dark very soon.
And as hitman thrillers go, this ain’t Leon. Hero Jay (hungrily performed by usually supporting actor Maskell) is unhinged, possibly placing both him and Gal in peril, creating levels of violence that put this alongside The Killer Inside Me and Irreversible for flinch-away shock.
Like Wheatley’s debut Down Terrace, the dialogue is kept naturalistic and blackly comic (“Right, let’s kill this MP then”), splintered editing techniques, how-did-they-do-that single take bludgeonings, odd intertitles, and a weird sound design employed to ratchet up the dread.
Bravely shifting from nails hard thriller to out-and-out horror for the final act pays off, as does the decision to casually toss out puzzling pieces of information and earlier domestic acts (pay close attention to the back garden frolicking) that return to haunt the characters come the showdown, while demanding a second viewing from the audience to fit together all the pieces.
Subtexts swirl around in abundance, particularly the ruling classes’ dispassion when sending working class men to do terrible things, but Wheatley never forgets the golden rule that horror can hold up a cracked mirror to society as long as it provides some bloody good jolts.