SXSW FILM FESTIVAL
SXSW Review: 'Kill List' is Just as Thought-Provoking As It is Creepy
by Jeremy Kirk
March 19, 2011
Maybe not the best, but some of the most interesting films are the ones you have to mull over in your head for days after watching it. Their the kinds of films friends debate about, throwing theories around about the subtext and often even the context of what they had just seen. Ben Wheatley can pat himself on the back, because he's written and directed Kill List, a film that has that precise effect on the people who watch it. As with any film that follows this suit, it's bound to be divisive. Some will come out throwing their hands in the air of frustration. Others will know all the pieces of this arcane puzzle are there and require sifting through to see just where they snap together. What can be agreed upon is just how provoking, creepy, and utterly compelling Kill List truly is.
In the film, Neil Maskell plays Jay, a former soldier who, along with his partner Justin, played by Ben Crompton, take on assignments as hitmen. Jay's home life is slowly tearing at the seams. He constantly gets into screaming matches with his wife Shel, played by MyAnna Buring, about money, his assignments, and a previous but disastrous job that has left Jay a bit murky mentally and not all there physically.
That's just the setup, but to get into too much more synopsis could aid in ruining some of the effect Wheatley has injected into his story. The bulk of Kill List involves Jay and Justin's latest series of assignments, one that takes dark turns all along the way. It's not that Kill List is episodic. Once the film gets past its initial, 30-minute establishment of these characters - and a lot of that could have been trimmed in favor of the narrative - we are on assignment with the two leads, and each assignment serves as a piece to that puzzle mentioned earlier.
Much of the film is dependent on these two characters getting along, as well, and Maskell and Crompton have great dynamism together. Even in the scenes where they are butting heads and getting into physical arguments, there's a history between them that has been hinted at and supplanted in the mind of the viewer. They love one another even if there is too much machismo being exuded for either of them to actually say it.
Kill List builds to something, something as dark as you could possibly imagine. There is definite violence throughout the film, and much of it is depicted realistically and unflinchingly. Jay makes good use of a hammer to cringe-inducing results. There is also a sense of foreboding sprinkled in here and there. There is never much explanation for what is happening, and this lack of exposition is something Wheatley has become quite gifted at. You don't need everyone walking you through the situation. You don't need someone monologuing explaining away their intentions. It requires you to think, and once the credits on Kill List are rolling, that is precisely what you'll be doing. After picking your jaw up off the floor, of course.
Some are claiming the ending of the film shows a disconnect to the rest, and this simply isn't the case. The clues are there. It's in small flashes of photos. Writing and familiar symbols on papers and files. It's in a very obvious scene early on when that familiar symbol - one that opens the entire film with white on black markings - rears its head for the first time in context. There is a definite answer to what occurs in Kill List, how we get to that ending, where it leaves us, and what happens next. Just because Wheatley doesn't show it to us doesn't mean it's nonexistent.
And the vagueness continues. It is quite hard to explain a film that requires this much subtext sifting and theorizing in its narrative. There are definite films that could be used in comparison with Kill List, but even mentioning their names might begin to give away certain directions this film takes. Just know that Ben Wheatley has crafted a mind-bending trek of identity and murder. Kill List spookily builds its crescendo with near effortless atmosphere. It makes you uneasy, turns off all the lights, tells you it's about to punch you square in the gut, and then it does precisely that.
Jeremy's SXSW Rating: 8 out of 10
Kill List was part of the SXFantastic titles, midnight films that played at SXSW 2011 programmed by Fantastic Fest.