Second thoughts on British horror film Kill List
by Ben Sachs
Having thought about the movie for a couple weeks (it may be more accurate to say I’ve been unable not to think about it), I’ve come to admire it a good deal. Its nauseating violence now strikes me as purposeful, even necessary. Like Gaspar Noé’s 1998 I Stand Alone—the movie it reminds me of most—Kill List uses its horrifying imagery as part of a larger political provocation. If you have a strong stomach, I’d recommend attending one of the final shows at the Music Box tonight. Some further considerations—along with spoilers—follow the jump.
The movie follows Jay (Neil Maskell) and Gal (Michael Smiley), two former soldiers now working as hit men in England. Desperate for a job, they take a three-victim contract from a mysterious old man who refuses to disclose important details. Wheatly divides the story into a prologue and three chapters (each named after the profession of one of the victims), beginning with an atmosphere of strict realism and gradually introducing fantastical elements until the film reaches a plane of near abstraction. It seems worth noting that the violence becomes more gruesome as the story becomes more allegorical.
This progression allows Wheatly to cleverly manipulate audience sympathy as well as narrative form. The movie’s first extended sequence—probably its single most successful passage—plays on tropes of kitchen-sink realism to make us sympathize with Jay and Sam while hinting at the barbarism they’re capable of. It depicts an unpleasant get-together between the two men and their significant others, a long night that climaxes with an argument between Jay and his wife that nearly comes to blows. Wheatly and his actors carve out an impressive dramatic shape here, lunging from moments of reckless energy to violent anger to drunken reconciliation. The sequence places the characters in a familiar humanist tradition (think Arthur Miller’s The View From the Bridge), suggesting that beneath their lack of sophistication lies genuine feeling.
But like I Stand Alone, Kill List lays to waste any humanist interpretation—which may help to explain why I was so offended by it at first. Despite the fact that Jay wants to be a good father and Gal shows sympathy for devout Christians, there’s ultimately nothing that redeems these men. Their “talents” for torture and murder prove to be mere sadism, and they appear to have no remorse for killing anybody (in a Pinteresque touch, they sometimes allude, blithely, to committing unspecified war crimes in Kiev). The men are modern mercenaries: even their suburban lifestyles—which the observant production design stuffs with useless upper-middle-class trinkets—reflect unthinking greed.
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