The Most Beautiful Fraud: Kill List

Surprise is one of the most important things to me in art.  When you reach a certain point in your life, you’ve become more or less familiar with most of the standard structure of narrative art forms, and while you can certainly appreciate it when something is simply done with excellent technique, what really knocks you back on your heels is when you see something that is, if not entirely original, at least unexpected.  While I usually don’t have any stake in the spoiler wars, this is the one instance where a rigorous anti-spoiler ethos can be valuable; there are some movies, books, and other stories where the best way to experience them is to know as little about them as possible going in.

Kill List is a movie I’ve been wanting to see since it first came out three years ago in the U.K.  Friends have been recommending it non-stop, always with the caveat that they dared not say too much about its plot or tone for fear of ruining the primary source of its rewards as a piece of art.  This led to a curious circumstance:  as with Takashi Miike’s Audition, a 1999 horror film it resembles structurally if not in narrative, I went to great pains to avoid reading anything at all about it — which, unfortunately, delayed me seeing it for years, since, as with Audition, I avoided it so assiduously that I actually forgot about it for months at a time.  In fact, director Ben Wheatley managed to get a couple more movies under his belt before I actually sat down to watch his most famous one unspoiled; I was only reminded of its existence when, while browsing the new releases rack at Scarecrow, I spotted his latest, A Field in England.  So I backtracked, climbed the stairs to the Psychotronics collection (its presence there actually constitutes a bit of a spoiler in itself), and headed home to watch it in as pure a state as I figured I’d ever get.

The film concerns itself with a ex-military man turned freelance killer named Jay, played with rolling, explosive intensity by the fine Neil Maskell.  Partnered up with his best friend and colleague Gal (Michael Smiley), he’s been in a semi-depressed state of decay since their last assignment — a visit to Kiev, the details of which are only hinted at — went disastrously wrong.  Gal has kept in the game, but Jay hasn’t worked in eight months, and he’s starting to feel it:  the money is running out, causing stress in his marriage to high-strung Swedish beauty Shel (MyAnna Buring), who’s less upset about the financial strain than she is having Jay mope around the house with no pride, no direction, and no self-esteem.  The strain is also causing their son to withdraw, and it’s driving a wedge between the partners, as well, which becomes obvious when the family invites Gal and his new girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer) over to dinner.  The evening degenerates into Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf-styled psychological degeneration, and Jay gives a fine portrait of the way unemployment can make a man ashamed and resentful, as he lashes out at Fiona and her job as a corporate axeman.  Gal begs him to come on a new job and pull himself out of his funk, and he reluctantly agrees.  These early scenes, especially with Wheatley’s careful camerawork and the kitchen-sink dialogue, play out almost like a realist drama, with the only unnerving hint of what’s to come appearing when Fiona, alone in the family bathroom, scrawls an enigmatic symbol on the back of the mirror.

The job involves killing three targets, and things start to go wrong for our men right away.  Not because the work is too difficult; if anything, it’s too easy.  They proceed at a leisurely pace (as does the film, giving us lots of time to take in character moments), but encounter no resistance as they take out a Catholic priest and a man who collects some sort of vile pornography or snuff film — as with much else, it is left unsaid what exactly his “library” consists of, but it’s enough to make Jay go on a rampage.  The victims seem to know their attackers, and are expecting to be killed — are even grateful that the end has come.  The whole thing becomes so upsetting that Jay and Gal try to back out of the deal, but the mysterious older man who hired them won’t have it.  It’s at this point that the film, which has slowly but noticeably been building in more and more moments of creepy, unexplained horror and ramping up its mood of unnerving paranoia and madness, completely changes into a whole different kind of movie, and I won’t ruin the experience by saying what happens next, other than that it is shocking and unexpected (though not without precedent), but it also commits Kill List to a permanent change in tone that it can’t ever take back.

Movies like this can take one of two paths.  They can be clockwork objects, intricately plotted and brilliantly constructed, where not a single shot is wasted, where every bit of dialogue and set dressing becomes, in retrospect, a clue that we only recognize once the true horror is unleashed.  They can also be freewheeling exercises in improvisation, where the sense of menace is created not by a crafty plot but by an inescapable and pervasive building of mood.  Both can be well done, and neither is better than the other; once you’ve seen Kill List through to the end, you’ll not only recognize which tradition it belongs to, but what its fairly clear precedents are.   Reducing it to the mere composite accretions of its elements is unfair to the film, though; it’s much better than just an accumulation of moods borrowed from other sources, and it does well to string us along for as long as it does.  Keeping us almost completely in the dark until the last savage sequence is Wheatley’s best decision, and, I think, is probably the reason for the film’s great reputation.

However, once it arrives there — once it stops trafficking in disturbing implication and has to show its hand — it doesn’t really have anywhere to go.  Which isn’t to say that the last scene isn’t chillingly effective; original or not, it’s certainly one of the most powerful endings I’ve seen in a horror movie in ages.  It’s just that it necessitates the abandoning of a lot of plot threads that accumulated during the rest of the movie, and that makes it lose something in the long term.  Kill List sets itself up as a movie with something to say about unemployment, economic malaise, the disintegration of the family, the world of the post-modern war, and the effects of immoral behavior on friendship, and in order to deliver its spectacular payoff, it more or less has to let all those things fall away, which is tantamount to not having brought them up in the first place.  There are a few other problems with the movie (some of the improvised dialogue rang false to me, perhaps because much of its main cast came from a comic acting background), but this may be its biggest stumbling block.  It’s not really Wheatley’s fault — as we learned with other near-classics of the genre (House of the Devil comes immediately to mind), horror movies can’t really get by just on mood, tone and implication.  Eventually they have to end; something has to happen.  And when that something doesn’t quite mesh with what has come before — even when, as here, the ending is so memorable and electrifying, it still has to seem of a piece with what has preceded it, and if it doesn’t, it can be a barrier between very good and great.

If this seems like a pan, it isn’t.  Kill List is almost breathtakingly unique and original, and for someone who’s not a big booster of occult horror or wisecracking-hitman tales, I enjoyed it far more than I thought the cross-pollination of those genres could justify.  Wheatley is a thoughtful and talented presence behind the camera, and few movies I’ve seen of late have kept me so genuinely on edge for so long.  It seems almost crass to fault a movie for the way its tonal shifts don’t quite add up, when so few films are ambitious enough to even try such a thing.  Still, that’s a lesson of knowing nothing about a movie before you go into it:  it can help you experience it with the freshest eyes possible, but it can also lead you to believe that it has qualities that will end up disappointing you if they’re not fully present.  If Kill List isn’t exactly the genre-splitting work of genius it could have been, though, it’s a hundred times better than the low-grade, quip-heavy gorefest it would have been in the hands of a lesser director.  I hate to spend 1,500 words telling you to ignore me, but this is a movie that’s absolutely worth seeing, and it’s worth seeing with as little information as you can get.

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