Ben Wheatley’s hotly anticipated new thriller “Kill List” has had critics buzzing since it premiered at last year’s South by Southwest Festival. Overall, the response has been surprisingly positive for a thriller starring relatively unknown actors that was made for around half a million pounds. One tagline declares that the film “will unhinge even the most hardened genre fans.” Well, speaking as one such fan, it is my sad duty to report that that’s just not the case. This is (yet) another film that has fallen prey to the trend of the twist ending, and it’s enough to ruin an otherwise compelling story.
But it’s more complicated than that. The film starts out strongly with a nuanced, sustained character study of its protagonist, Jay, an ambivalent hit man played by Neil Maskell. Short, slightly pudgy and constantly on edge, Jay has taken a few months off after a botched hit in Kiev—which is referenced repeatedly but never explained—and is trying to reconnect with his materialistic wife (MyAnna Buring) and young son. Gal (an excellent Michael Smiley), Jay’s friend and literal partner in crime, tries to cajole him into getting together for the proverbial “one last job,” but Jay is adamant about sticking to his newly clean lifestyle. Whatever happened in Kiev rattled him to the core. However, as his wife complains about their lack of disposable income and Jay feels his masculinity slipping away, his resolve crumbles.
Soon, Jay and Gal are on the road to the seedy outskirts of Northern England, where they receive the titular kill list. They trek around the depressing moors and vales in search of their victims—among them a librarian who makes snuff films, a sadistic priest and a doctor, all of whom creepily thank Jay before he kills them—the greyish, muddy surroundings mirroring Jay’s inner ambivalence and despair. This is the most interesting part of the film; the relationship between Jay and Gal is fleshed out nicely during their journeys. They joke, argue, fight, and betray a deep brotherly love for each other. It’s a good melding of two classic British film subgenres: kitchen sink drama and gritty crime thriller.
However, as the hits pile up, Gal starts to grow concerned about Jay—instead of simply executing his victims, Jay begins to take pleasure in maiming and torturing them in ever more creative ways. It’s clear that something primal and cruel has taken root inside Jay, and Gal doesn’t know how to bring it up in conversation, let alone how to keep it under control when they’re carrying out their morbid duties. Several of these scenes are indeed shocking in their clear-eyed portrayal of the violence that Jay unleashes on his victims; there’s no handheld camera or cheesy special effects to shield the viewer from what the film is determined to show. In an age of “gotcha” thrills and cutting-away-at-the-last-moment torture porn, that at least is an admirable aspect of “Kill List.”
What’s less admirable is the bizarre turn the narrative takes with about 20 minutes to go. I won’t spoil it entirely with specifics, but here’s the gist: on their way to assassinate a government minister, Jay and Gal discover that they’ve been the victims of a grand conspiracy, nothing is as it seems, and apparently the English woods are frequently overrun with torch-wielding hordes of naked people wearing masks that recall “The Wicker Man.” With breathtaking audacity, the film proceeds in its final ten minutes to negate all the work it did in the previous 75, undoing its careful character development and revealing key plot developments to be—you guessed it—part of the aforementioned grand conspiracy.
It’s a real shame that Wheatley (whose 2009 comedy “Down Terrace” was quite well received) didn’t see fit to stay focused on his characters and resist the urge to cheapen his story with an improbable twist ending. Here’s hoping that his next effort will stick closer to where his talent clearly lies: in documenting the minutiae of contemporary male relationships, whether or not they involve contract killing.