There are a lot of delicate things at balance in a good horror movie. The comedy, if used, should land as gracefully as the terror, without ever turning into camp. Actors have to provide depth to their characters, without coming across as cartoonish “scream queens.” Violence should be present, but restrained enough that the film overall does not descend into “torture porn.”
Luckily, director Ben Wheatley is able to maintain that balance for his sophomore effort Kill List. Wheatley follows up his first feature about a British crime family Down Terrace with an equally genre-bending examination into the consequences of human violence. Wheatley proves to be remarkably clever with the script and behind the camera and his principal cast turns in strong performances, making it understandable that Kill List received 6 nominations at last year’s British Independent Film Awards.
Despite its clear labeling as a horror film, the first 20 minutes of Kill List feature a domestic dispute that is more reminiscent of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” than The Wicker Man. Jay (Neil Maskell) is an unemployed war veteran and spendthrift that is in a constant battle over finances with his wife Shel (MyAnna Buring). Their domestic tension erupts at a dinner party with Jay’s friend, Gal (Michael Smiley), and his new girlfriend, Fiona (Emma Fryer). Gal takes Jay outside to calm him down and inform him about a business proposition – three assassinations for a large sum of money.
The dinner party concludes and the tone shifts dramatically from domestic drama to buddy hitman thriller. Before this happens, however, Fiona plants some evidence at the home of Jay and Shel that gives us our first sign that something more sinister is afoot. Jay and Gal proceed to execute their killing contract, with each successive assassination becoming more violent. After learning that their second victim produces disgusting snuff films, Jay becomes vengeful and murders him in one of the most gruesome scenes of the film. Wheatley is very methodical about what violence makes it on screen and this particular instance comes after the victim insinuates that Jay might be just like him. Other violent scenes in the film are more modest, usually cutting away before the blood sprays, but this time we see every shocking detail. This shows irony in Jay’s reaction, but also puts different levels of murder on the same moral plane.
Wheatley pulls the rug out from under the audience numerous times in the third act, so it is difficult to explain without delving into spoilers. Suffice to say, things do not go well for the hitman duo and the consequences of their murderous spree are proven to be dire. In a metaphor that can be applied to any conflict, international or personal, Wheatley smartly shows us that choosing violence is always the wrong decision as we learn that Jay’s climactic knife fight is a losing battle, no matter who is on the other side.
Wheatley claims to have written the characters Jay and Gal specifically for British actors Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley, which is undoubtedly true upon seeing the pair’s dynamic performances. Jay is the more amoral of the two, making up stories about his intended victims in order to justify their killings. Maskell infuses him with surprisingly touching humanity, which is evident in the tenderness he shows when interacting with his son. Gal is one of the films’ only characters with a conscience and Smiley’s nervous smile and forced sense of humor indicates a man who quickly has gotten way over his head.
There is a mystery slowly unraveled in Kill List that will keep the viewer guessing even after the credits roll. Wheatley and co-screenwriter Amy Jump wisely allow their audience to come up with our own conclusions and our own meaning for the film. However, even the most seasoned of horror veterans will be put off by the third act tonal shift and eventually to its open-ended conclusion. Wheatley understands that basking in the grotesque is not necessary and a well-executed twist can be just as devastating as gore. A little blood and guts are certainly acceptable, but, like so many other elements in the horror genre, it’s all about balance.
Bottom Line: Kill List is a genre-bending film that masters its tonal shifts perfectly.