Kill List is a low budget (approximately £500,000) British thriller/horror movie, that was shot in Sheffield and released towards the end of 2011, directed by Ben Wheatley. It was trailed with the prominent use of a curious, unexplained symbol “ something like half occult sign, half rifle sight, which hinted at some of the mysteries to come.
And there were lots of mysteries to come. Kill List follows Jay, a former soldier who since leaving the army has become a contract assassin. But eight months ago something happened in Kiev – but what? we aren’t told – though given his line of work it seems likely it was something very bad , and he hasn’t worked since. He hangs around the house, soaking in his Jacuzzi for his apparently bad back, and apathetically watching his relationship with his wife Shell (MyAnna Buring, who is excellent) deteriorate.
One evening, Jay’s friend and former business partner Gal arrives at the house for dinner. He has brought along his new girlfriend Fiona. Gal has been offered a contract and wants a reluctant Jay to come onboard, and help him eliminate the people on this ˜kill list’. The evening goes badly with a huge fight between Jay and Shell, but eventually they work things out and Jay agrees to take the contract. But why has Fiona scratched that strange symbol on the back of a mirror, and stolen a bloody tissue that Jay used when he cut himself shaving?
From then on, Kill List only get darker and stranger as Jay and Gal go and sign the contract “ why does their employer make Jay sign in blood? “ and begin the list. As they head further into the bleak world the contract has drawn them into “ why do their victims thank them before dying? “ Jay’s paranoia starts to build. He’s drinking too much, he’s going off list in search of those he sees as guilty of crimes he needs to punish “ why does one of the victims think he knows Jay? “ he’s taking medication for a wound on his hand that won’t heal.
Kill List‘s director Ben Wheatley builds up the oppressive, claustrophobic atmosphere superbly and the two leads, Neil Maskell as Jay and Michael Smiley, a world away from his best known character, that of Tyres in the sitcom Spaced, as Gal, are excellent. The constraints of the small budget give the movie a gritty, realistic feel, so this thriller feels somehow like a strange social realist / horror / thriller genre mash up. The tension is occasionally punctuated by a moment of levity, or a scene of really brutal violence. It all builds and builds to an ending where the two are heading for the final name on the list, and answers must surely be given¦And then¦ and then¦
The ending to Kill List, without giving too much away, is very, very strange. A huge, bizarre set piece, it feels slightly out of keeping with the low-key nature of the rest of the film, it also fails to provide easy answers to the questions that have been raised earlier. When I first watched it, I was very disappointed when the credits rolled. What on earth had just happened? It felt like the director had thrown away all the excellent build up work. So I went online to try to find some answers, and came across a lot of people who had evidently done the same thing. Was it all a dream, was there a strange cult involved, was it even a re-telling of an Arthurian legend? People put forward their own theories and others added to them or suggested new ones.
And as I read their ideas, the ending of Kill List started to make some sort of sense. I found myself thinking back over early scenes that had appeared almost throwaway, or simply there to develop character, to see if there were any clues hidden there. Theories that seemed plausible had to be discarded because of a line a character had said an hour previously “ it made me appreciate the nuance of the film, the huge jigsaw that narratives piece together that can often go unnoticed. Over the next couple of days, I found myself thinking things like ˜Oh, maybe it’s¦ Wait, no it can’t be because that happened earlier’.
Kill List has its flaws; it’s frustrating and I still can’t piece everything together in a completely satisfying way. However, it’s compelling throughout, and I can think of few films that have had me turning them over in my mind for days after watching them. The longer I leave writing this review, the more stars it’s probably going to get (it definitely wouldn’t have had as many if I’d written the review straight away). And if anyone who’s seen it has any theories about it, I’d love to hear them.