Killtoberfest 3 – #19: Kill List

In All, Movies by Kyu

“Daddy thinks the cat brings us little presents. The cat thinks we don’t eat enough in this house. I just think the cat likes killing rabbits.”

I don’t like spoilers. In fact, I try to avoid knowing anything about a movie beyond whatever information I need in order to decide I want to see it. A new Christopher Nolan movie? That’s literally all I need to know, and I will go out of my way not to see trailers, cast lists, or anything else. I find that going into a movie fresh helps to make it more surprising and entertaining, and prevents me from measuring it against some built-up expectation from the trailer, the marketing, etc. And it’s the same for these Killtoberfest movies–when I can, I like to go in as blind as possible.

Of course, with these movies, I can get in trouble that way. Every year I end up seeing a handful of Killtoberfest movies that aren’t really horror films at all. This year I took three I wasn’t sure about and stuck them together in one group, the “Are these even horror movies?” sounder. Our next Killtoberfest 3 entry, Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (2011), is certainly a horror film, and definitely one you should go into knowing as little as possible. My problem with the movie is that I didn’t know much more than that afterwards. Honestly, I’d recommend you not see this one. But if you do want to, be aware that there are all kinds of spoilers ahead.

The story of a troubled marriage and a set of murders for hire gone bad, Kill List is at its most interesting when notes of discordance threaten to throw both plotlines entirely off-track… until the movie ends and you realize that these troubling, frightening moments lack either coherency or substance, I’m not sure which. There’s a lot I’m not sure about, here, and the film’s conclusion had me Googling “Kill List explained”. As it turns out, there’s not much to the explanation.

Let me go through it with you. The film centers on Jay (Neil Maskell), a British Iraq veteran who has since become a hit man. He works with his friend, Gal (Michael Smiley, very good), but they haven’t done a job in eight months, not since something went vaguely bad with a hit in Kiev. The resulting financial difficulties are putting a strain on Jay’s family–his wife, Shel (MyAnna Buring, also quite good), and his 7-year-old son, Sam. Most of this comes out during a long and uncomfortable dinner sequence between Jay, Shel, Gal, and Gal’s date Fiona (Emma Fryer), who says she’s an HR rep in charge of downsizing but later carves a cult-ish symbol on the back of Jay’s mirror. With me so far?

Jay and Gal finally agree to do another job together, and are hired by a mysterious blonde man in an anonymous hotel room. The man cuts Jay’s hand, essentially signing the compact in blood, and the two hit men are off to the races–three targets, three large stacks of cash. We know little about the targets beyond their occupations (The Priest, The Librarian, The MP), and the hits themselves are uninteresting, but there are two points the film is making here. First, it is increasingly clear that something odd is going on here–Jay’s victims thank him for their murders, and at home, someone murders his cat as some kind of warning. Second, we also begin to realize that Jay’s problems run deeper than confidence or resentment; some combination of guilt, moral outrage, and PTSD have given him the capacity for extreme violence when provoked–messy, “off-list” behavior that Gal warns him isn’t professional.

The third and final target on their list is a trap. Instead of taking out their intended victim, Gal and Jay witness a bizarre pagan ritual, a suicide watched and applauded by half-naked people in creepy straw masks. When Jay tries to interfere, the cultists chase after them into a series of tunnels, where a violent and nervewracking battle leaves Gal dead. Jay rushes home to his family, only to find the cult attacking their house. Kidnapped and bearing his own mask, Jay becomes the center of a new ritual, a forced knife-fight with a cloaked figure who, in the movie’s sickening final twist, turns out to be his wife and child. A horrified Jay is crowned king, the cultists applaud, annnnd scene.

I go through this unusual amount of plot summary with you so that you understand when I say I’m not leaving out anything of significance that might explain or flesh out the plot. The film isn’t designed to be subtle, it’s designed to be indecipherable. I get the literal aspects of the plot, at least to the vague extent that the film allows. The cult selected Jay (for some unknown reason) to perform this ritual (to some unknown end) and hired him to kill these people (some of whom are presumably cultists, which is why they thank him) as part of that scheme, although it doesn’t really make sense why they would. What I don’t understand is what the point of this story is supposed to be. What’s the connection between the troubled marriage and its violent end? What’s the significance of the three victims on the kill list? Why does this story take this form?

The movie’s underlying logic is nightmarishly nonsensical, even as individual scenes strive for kitchen-sink realism–complex emotional relationships, minimalist action, generic locations, hand-held cinematography. It’s like someone threw Dogme 95 and The Wicker Man into a blender and hit frappé. It’s a domestic melodrama that stops developing after the first act, when it turns into a thriller that’s too minimalist to be thrilling, and then finally a horror movie that doesn’t make any sense or connect strongly to anything that’s come before it. It sort of makes sense as a mood piece (today’s mood: discomfort), but is so bogged down by details and clues that seem as though they should add up to something that the whole effect is more frustrating and boring than upsetting. It doesn’t seem as though the movie has anything to say–or if it does, it can’t be heard from deep inside its own ass. Ben Wheatley is a good director who gets strong performances out of his actors and has an eye for staging the macabre. What he needs is a sensible foundation for those talents, and hopefully someday someone else’s script will provide him with one. Kill List has been on my list for a while; if it’s on your list, kill it. Kill it off your list like I wish I’d killed Kill List off my list when I had the chance to kill it. List. Kill List.

Killtoberfest 3 continues! Click here for more horror (but not horrible) reviews, including Killtoberfests 1 and 2.