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Our review of Kill List (Blu-ray), published August 14th, 2012, is also available.
"They should suffer."
Even with some missteps, Kill List is an unsettling and effective genre mash-up that will alienate some and terrify others.
Facts of the Case
Following a disastrous freelance job in the Ukraine, ex-soldier Jay (Neil Maskell, The Football Factory) has spent the past eight months jobless, and his family's dwindling resources has made things rocky with his wife (MyAnna Buring). Just then an old military pal, Gal (Michael Smiley, Spaced), shows up with an offer that could make things right. If the duo pull off three contract killings for a client, they'll get a nice lump of cash. No hassle…or so they think.
Blending genres in films often seems like an exercise in futility; it might look good on paper, but how it plays out on screen can be a completely different story. Ben Wheatley's Kill List does traffic in some fairly disparate genres—British crime thriller, black comedy, gonzo horror, and low-budget domestic drama. The result is a little rough around the edges, but the film often slides into an unsettling, creepy groove that really works.
Much of Kill List's uneasiness comes from the ambiguity of its screenplay, written by Wheatley and wife Amy Jump. Jay and Gal's mission seems straightforward, but the there's an increasing feeling that something is not right, as they go about their business. Seemingly mundane actions are are tinted with a sense of dread, and the dreary wide-angle shots of Sheffield are simultaneously foreboding and starkly beautiful. As the violence increases, questions being to pile up; the film hinting at answers, without doing much audience hand-holding.
And boy, does the violence increase. While Gal is amiable and mild-mannered, Jay has a short temper that surfaces during their hits. The result is some pretty shocking brutality. One scene in particular (you'll know it when you get to it) is difficult to watch, and Wheatley's editing choices (or lack of) contrast the idea of "hitmen as folk heroes" with what's happening on the screen. It's easy to care about the protagonists, as Maskell and Smiley do a formidable job humanizing their characters. But even after spending so much time in their lives, Kill List doesn't hesitate to show that Jay and Gal are doing bloody, morally repugnant work. Unlike a lot of other genre films, there's no thrill in the gore—just overwhelming melancholy and lingering questions.
The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer and Dolby 5.1 Surround mix are commendable. Even with a small budget, the film looks great. Director of photography Laurie Rose fills his frame with haunting, captivating shots, and Jim Williams's sound design is simply magnificent stuff that helps nail the movie's weird tone. Some of the dialogue gets muffled at times, but it's quite good overall. The bonus features are on the short side, though. The two commentaries and the brief-but-fun making-of segment are worth checking out. But you can skip the featurette that takes clips from short interviews, cuts them with the film's trailer, and tries to pass it off as something new.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There's a point where ambiguousness can shift over into pure confusion, and Kill List approaches this line more than once. It's easy to see how frustrating this movie could be for some folks; it's deliberately slow in spots, doesn't explain a whole lot, and doesn't pad the gruesome violence with one-liners. And while I felt like the mood it ultimately conjures will give me nightmares for a long time, others might just find it all a messy bore.
It'll push away some in boredom or disgust, but Kill List is a weirdly flawed cross-genre gem that works on a lot of different levels. It's must be doing something right, when the most chilling scene doesn't involve gore or jump scares, but a simple wave of the hand.
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