Review: KILL LIST (AFI Film Fest 2011)

ReviewMovie by Ben Pearson


Ben Wheatley's Kill List is unquestionably the most deeply disturbing film I've seen in years. It's The Wicker Man - the original, not the godawful Nicolas Cage remake - meets Oldboy, and if you've seen either or both of those films, you know I'm talking about a special kind of effed up subject matter here.

Jay (Neil Maskell) and his wife Shel (MyAnna Buring) are former military, living in suburbia with their son. They argue constantly about everything, feeling tension from Jay somehow blowing an important mission in Kiev eight months earlier. Their friend Gal (Michael Smiley) and his new girlfriend Fiona come for dinner, and the film gets off to a slow start. There are a couple of flareups, some fights and reconciliations, but ultimately Gal convinces Jay to partner up with him on a job to assassinate people. They get the titular kill list, and that's when things start to get weird. An unannounced blood pact and the discovery of a torture film ring pushes Jay over the edge into Korean revenge movie territory. You know how Ryan Gosling carries around that hammer near the end of Drive - minor spoilers for Drive in the remainder of this sentence - but he never really does anything with it? Kill List proudly says, "Screw that - we're USING that damn hammer." And that's not even mentioning the jaw-dropping finale, an insane display of ballsy storytelling that ramps up the tension so high that the movie transforms into a horror film.

Partnering hitmen is familiar ground in that subgenre, with everything from Pulp Fiction to In Bruges using variations on the formula. But the relationship between Jay and Gal feels somehow deeper than the ones in those other stories, as if these guys have known each other longer. We feel that friendly connection between them, and that loyalty, trust, and history plays an important part in the way they work together. That's why when Jay gets a little crazy, we feel the same sense of unease that Gal does as he watches his friend spiral out of control.

I had no idea what I was in for when I sat down in the theater, but Ben Wheatley directed the hell out of this film. By giving it such a slow buildup, with tiny hints peppered in foreshadowing the bombastic finale, it gives the final act a shock value that no one could see coming. The last twenty minutes contain a scene in some underground tunnels that could go beat for beat with any horror movie; the claustrophobia of being trapped in that environment with no way out and terror creeping in is part of what made Ryan Reynolds' Buried so interesting to watch. The score, composed by Jim Williams (no relation to John, as far as I know), is dissonant and glaring, adding to the twisted dread of the tone.

I was disappointed with Miss Bala, and even though I wouldn't say that watching Kill List was an enjoyable experience, it had a visceral impact on me - it rattled me to my core. It's a slow swell, and when you least expect it, Kill List sucker punches you in the gut and leaves you staggering, trying to catch your breath. It is without question the most messed up movie of 2011 so far. Until next time...

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