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Non-Review Review: Kill List

A special thanks to the guys over at movies.ie for sneaking us into an advanced preview screening.

Being charitable, Kill List is a complete mess of a film. It has a decent concept, and a solid middle section. However, these are surrounded by an incredibly boring opening half-hour and a monumentally stupid and non-sensical ending. It’s a shame, because one gets the sense that there’s a very clever, very entertaining movie to be found if one can dig deep enough, but it’s very hard to like a film that is so decidedly uneven and feels like an especially random video nasty.

Not exactly light subject matter...

At its best, the movie is a fairly fascinating look at the kind of people who would become contract killers. It’s two guys who worked in the army together, and who have decided to make ends meet by putting to use a very particular set of skills. These aren’t cold-blooded sociopaths, nor are they ever especially cool. They’re just two guys who have been forced to put their practical skills to work in order to put food on the table. Of course, the film shoots itself in the foot (so to speak) by demonstrating the kind of stuff that these hitmen spend their money on (a jacuzzi seems an extravagance) – not to the point of making them seem morally complex, but to the point where I’m thinking they need a sound financial planner, and have really stopped caring about whether they have enough money to eat. The idea of a family living on the bread line and a father having to provide by doing the only thing he knows how is a relatively original take, but it seems sort of  wasted by making them seem like over-privileged yuppies.

However, the simple fact is that this prologue goes on far too long. The film is trying to get us to care about these contract killers, and their families – an attempt to humanise them. However, the fact is that there are far more economical and efficient ways to do so. After a half-an-hour, I don’t really know (or, to be brutally honest, care) any more about the family than I did after about sixty seconds. Part of the problem is the script and the improvised dialogue, which doesn’t bring anybody to life. However, the director’s style is also a huge culprit.

I feel like I got taken for a ride...

Ben Wheatley has this incredibly irritating manner of just cutting and cutting and cutting, just when a scene’s about to become interesting – the idea being that we seem to miss key snippets, and are slightly uneasy or disoriented. However, if you’re skipping all but the most important stuff, the start shouldn’t feel so padded out. It also hurts because emotional scenes tend to be anchored in continuity of performance – it’s seeing an actor develop a character in the space of a short scene. The jumping around in these scenes feels completely pointless.

On the other hand, the technique does work really well once the film actually starts getting a bit creepier. The cutting and jumping creates the impression of blackouts or crucial missed seconds. It helps make the audience squirm a bit, which is where the middle section of the film works really well. I’m not even talking about the sequences following the two lead characters into action, I’m talking about the moments where it becomes clear everything is not as it seems. The middle of the film is a fairly decent little thriller in its own right, and one that seems to have quite a few clever ideas.

A good shot at a decent hitman thriller...

“This doesn’t feel wrong,” one of the hitmen observes. “They are bad people. They deserve to suffer.” The film dares to ask whether it’s possible to justify that sort of brutality to one’s self, and suggests that the violence tends to infect and scar those who use it. There’s a lot of fine drama to be wrought from a person attempting to justify a horrible act, and the movie seems to be doing a genuinely impressive job. In fact, the film rather brilliantly allows us to see things from the perspective of these murderers – they don’t know why they’ve been contracted, and must decide what they want or need to know about their victims in order to do their job. There’s no exposition, and no bigger plan to be seen – instead it’s just two men doing a particularly nasty job.

And then things start to come off the rails. As interesting as it is to keep the characters in the dark about what’s going on (and as compelling as it makes watching them do their jobs), it doesn’t work when you try to build a conspiracy on top of that. Particularly when the movie suggests that everyone is in on it. You need an explanation or a motivation in order to convince us to buy that. Instead, the movie falls back on one of the classic tropes of British horror, somewhat spoiled by the trailers, and the only motivation that’s even suggested is “reconstruction.”

Sorry, I can't resist using the captions to take cheap shots...

You could argue that the ambiguity around the final act makes the film a richer experience, encouraging the audience to dig into the material and reach their own conclusions. However, that only works if your ending is clever enough to hold together and engaging enough to hold our attention. The ending to Kill List is, unfortunately, neither. It just seems like somebody involved in the production introduced their idea with, “You know what would be crazy and therefore cool?” The final scene isn’t foreshadowed, but I pretty much guessed how it was going to play out once the set-up was revealed. It’s not smart or shocking, it’s trite and clichéd. While giving us a reason or a motivation (or even a solid hint of either) might serve to help the ending move past that, it just seems like a really stupid conclusion.

Which is a shame, because there’s some good stuff here. I like the way that the hitmen doing their job are very human – a cancelled credit card leading to an awkward moment, or the theft of hotel toiletries. Michael Smiley is charming as one half of the duo, and I adore his observation that “good manners cost nothing” after meeting with a particularly sinister client. There are more than a few genuinely disturbing moments – involving the type of special effects that would make an eighties video nasty blush – which do exactly what they’re intended to do.

Unfortunately, there’s also a very weak start and an incredibly shallow ending – it’s just a shame that there’s an interesting idea trapped in the middle.

3 Responses

  1. interesting review. i personally loved the film. but i can fully appreciate why you didn’t and infact agree with you to a certain extent.

    did you not like down terrace either?

    one point about the “yuppy” comment you made, these actions rang completely true to me. living in england for 25 years i’ve seen so many people live with the same deluded upwardly mobile dreams in houses incredibly similar to the one featured in the movie. these people are not over privileged they just wish they were. just the way the constant barrage of tv and celebrity gossip is telling them to behave.

    • Never seen Down Terrace, might be worth a look.

      I can understand that the jacuzzi is a symbol of a class they aspire to, but it just served to immediately lose any sympathy or interest I had in them. Just because it’s not an unconscious thing like (say) the copious volume of expensive wine and forgetting the toilet tissue, but it’s the kinda expense that they don’t accrue without thinking about it. I don’t know. Maybe if the prologue hadn’t seemed so padded it wouldn’t have stuck out, but it did.

      In fairness, I liked the middle. It was just the beginning and ending. I can see how people would like it – that people might respond to the challenge it poses, but the movie didn’t give me enough faith that there was an answer worth finding to convince me to dig into it, if that makes sense. But, doctor’s differ and I think I’m firmly in the minority on this one – maybe it’s just not for me, which is a bit of a copout.

      • i loved down terrace and i went in expecting the entire movie to be a bit like the prologue rather than that messed up ending and that extreme violence in the middle. and definitely this movie is not for everyone.

        i am yet to find any blogger who has loved the movie so you may not be in the minority. it may just be the paid reviewers lavishing praise, im not sure.

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