'Kill List' Packs a Wallop
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
"And I must be an acrobat to talk like this and act like that." Yeah, I know; I never thought I'd quote a U2 song in a movie review (let alone in any other context), but if the words fit, use 'em. And in the case of Jay (Neil Maskell), the alternately hapless and raging protagonist of "Kill List," the harrowing, inventive, disturbing and shudderingly brisk new British thriller co-written and directed by Ben Wheatley ("Down Terrace"), they fit. And Jay's problem is bigger than that: He's not even aware that he's selling himself (to others, and to himself) as something that he is not. Eventually, he learns.
When we meet Jay he's out of work and out of money, and his beautiful wife, Shel (Sweden-born actress MyAnna Buring), is bugging him to get something like a job. He resists. They argue. He mutters, "You're in serious danger of turning into a miserable cow, Shel." And yet he professes to love her and their young child, and cites his desire to remain a settled family man as a pretext for avoiding going back to work. A former soldier, he works as a hit man, or maybe some kind of mercenary. The exact nature of his last job, which went bust, in Kiev, isn't spelled out.
Search: More on Ben Wheatley
Jay's buddy and partner Gal (Michael Smiley) shows up one night with a gorgeous and intense new girlfriend and the promise of work. The two are seen framed underneath a real-life rainbow as they walk through a parking lot to meet their eerie, white-haired contractor, a funny visual joke and about the only note of levity in the film. The work itself is pretty intense: The three-person "kill list" of the title begins with a priest, who sweetly tells Jay "Thank you" before Jay shoots his forehead off.
And things get weirder from there. "Kill List" contains some really appallingly explicit scenes of killing and torture, but it alternates these with scenes in which violence is merely implied. The differing treatments are invariably purposeful, because the movie is ultimately a parable about violence itself, about how it becomes inescapable once it's unleashed in a particular way. ("I see you, I see who you are," Jay's new employer tells him when he tries to back out of his assignment.) But "Kill List" does not make its point in anything like a preachy way. No, it makes its point in what you might call an unspeakably awful way. Which, you know, is actually part of the point.
The film clocks in at a relatively short 95 minutes, and in that time it goes into territories that recall the likes of "Angel Heart," "The Wicker Man" and the earlier films of horror director Neil Marshall. The film's final scene is like a strong gut punch: It will literally take the wind out of some viewers. And while it reveals much of what came before as a form of viewer misdirection, that punch is not a sucker punch. While distracting us with all form of cinematic red herrings on the one hand, Wheatley and co-writer Amy Jump meticulously construct the platform for their finale on the other. It's remarkably clever and resourceful filmmaking, and a little on the diabolical side as well. To quote Bono one more time, as the end credits role, you'll thank God it was them instead of you. But you might not feel entirely un-implicated.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.