Review: Ben Wheatley’s ‘Kill List’ is creepy, potent genre ride

I reviewed “Down Terrace” late in the game, after it had already won some awards at Fantastic Fest, and I felt like I was the last one to realize just how impressive Ben Wheatley’s film was.  Of course, considering the size of the film’s eventual release and how much of a blip on the radar it made, that’s not true.  Most people still aren’t familiar with that jet-black look at the way crime can twist a family, but they should be.  And this past week at SXSW, I got a chance to see Wheatley’s new film as part of the amazing SXFantastic line-up, which starts out as a crime film, but which becomes something much stranger by the time it’s through.

“Kill List” became one of the big acquisitions stories out of SXSW this year, and I know why.  It’s the sort of film that you’ll have a strong reaction to one way or another, and you could cut a hell of a trailer for it.  The problem is that you don’t want to even hint at the way the film twists and turns, and so you’ve got to be very careful about it.  Even writing a review of the film, I feel obligated to warn you that it’s the sort of thing that plays better if you know very little about it.  I will endeavor to leave you at the end of this review with very little concrete information while still imparting my reactions, which isn’t easy.

The film, which he co-wrote with Amy Jump, is about Jay (Neil Maskell), a hitman who has been out of work for eight months following a major cock-up on his last job.  He’s trying to play it off like he just doesn’t feel like going back, but the inertia is starting to really wear on his wife Shel (MyAnna Buring).  When Gal (Michael Smiley) brings his girlfriend to dinner with Shel and Jay, Gal’s got an agenda in mind, and when he sees the toll that Jay’s unemployment is taking on their marriage, he takes the opportunity to pitch Jay on a job.  Jay might not be ready, but it seems like an easy assignment.  Three names, and once the list is done, there’s a big payday waiting.

The impressive thing about Wheatley’s work is the very mundane, matter of fact way he grounds everything in his films.  There’s a naturalistic quality to the camerawork by Laurie Rose (who also shot “Down Terrace”), and that helps because “Kill List” starts hinting that there is something much weirder going on than seems initially obvious, and the stranger the script gets, the more that natural, real-world aesthetic pays off.

It’s hard to play with genre without feeling like you’re just making a mash-up, but Wheatley’s done something very original here.  You can draw parallels between other films if you try, and it’s not inaccurate to say that the film packs a kick akin to “A Serbian Film” or “The Wicker Man” but without the emphasis on creepy sexuality to make things uncomfortable for viewers.  This is a movie that deals with the way someone’s nature can be turned against them, making them a perfect target for something without them realizing it, and the performances in the film are all pitch-perfect.  Maskell and Buring could easily be playing a straight domestic drama about a couple trying to survive one person’s forced redefinition of themselves, something that can tear even the best marriages apart, but then once the film starts to twist into something else, that grounded realistic partnership between them makes the ultimate payoff even more wrenching.  And Smiley’s work in the film is outstanding.  He’s got such a great low-grade malice that just pours off of him that the film would be an exercise in tension if it were just about his partnership with Maskell.

I still haven’t met Ben Wheatley or had a formal sit-down interview with him, but two films in and I’m convinced.  He’s one of the most interesting new voices in international genre filmmaking, and it feels like he’s just getting warmed up.  I can’t wait to see what he’s doing two or five or even ten films down the line.  One thing’s for sure, though… he’ll have his own take on things, and it’ll be exciting to watch him continue to grow.

I’ll have reviews on the rest of the SXFantastic line-up for you as well in the days ahead.

“Kill List” was picked up by IFC Midnight, who will release the film here in US sometime this year.