Sunday 29 December 2013

Kill List

Director: Ben Wheatley
Writers: Ben Wheatley, Amy Jump
Producers: Claire Jones, Andrew Starke
Cast: Neil Maskell, MyAnna Buring, Michael Smiley
Country: UK
Year of release: 2011
Reviewed from: UK theatrical release

Some critics have suggested that the best way to approach Kill List is with as little foreknowledge as possible. This is absolutely not the case and frankly unfair to the film’s audience. There are some things which you really should know before taking the time to watch this film.

First, despite early indications, this is a horror movie. Not quite supernatural horror but more than just excessive violence. The third act involves some sort of Wicker Man-style pagan/wiccan cult, positioning Kill List on the very edge of fantasy, depending on whether or not their magick is real (that’s not made clear). This is important to know because the first act, which introduces us to ex-squaddie Jay (Neil Maskell: Doghouse, Tony), his Swedish wife Shel (MyAnna Buring: The Descent, Devil’s Playground), his son Sam (Harry Simpson - no relation) and his oppo Gal (Michael Smiley: Burke and Hare, Outpost), goes on far too long.

We see the outward normality of these people’s lives. We learn that Jay and Gal were together in the army, then worked for a private security firm, then became freelance hitmen. Jay hasn’t worked in eight months and his savings are drying up, further cracking his strained marriage. Gal has been offered a job and wants Jay in on it.

While the quality of the writing, the direction and the performances ensure that this first part of the film doesn’t drag, the fact remains that it’s not what we’ve paid to see and the same ideas and information could have been conveyed in half the time. This would bring forward the start of the second act when the film turns into a thriller and hence hasten the arrival of the third act that we’re all waiting for.

The other thing which you really should know in advance is that you will be sorely disappointed if you expect any sort of explanation or resolution - and this is the film’s biggest failing. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that everything should be wrapped up with some pat explanation. I’m not even saying that all the questions raised should be answered. But at least some of them should be answered, otherwise what’s the point?

I’m all for films that leave unanswered questions. The Descent, for example, never explained what the crawlers were or whether they were even real. The ending of the film (in the British cut) was clearly in the main character’s head, but when did the narrative pass from reality to fantasy? Was it getting stuck in the narrow gap? Was it the accidental killing of a friend? My personal theory is that it was the car crash in the prologue and that everything after that is fantasy (an idea born out by the often overlooked scene of the hospital lights mysteriously switching off). The point is that the lack of a definite answer makes the debate all the more fascinating.

In a similar vein, Vampire Diary refuses to confirm or deny whether the central character is a real vampire or just a disturbed young woman with a taste for blood. There are plenty of other examples. In fact, there are legions of horror films which leave an audience wondering what happens next, especially those with a Carrie-style sting at the end.

But Kill List isn’t a film open to different interpretations, it’s a film which raises a whole bunch of unconnected questions and leaves them all hanging at the end - including what actually happens at the end. Without wanting to give away any spoilers, the climax of the movie is genuinely disturbing and shocking. For a brief moment I was in awe at the audacity of the film-makers, amazed at what they had revealed, but this was immediately muddied by confusion over character reactions which completely contradicted everything we had been told and shown so far - and then the whole thing just suddenly stopped. In an instant, ‘Wow!’ turned to ‘What?’. It is possibly the most disappointing, arbitrary cop-out of a non-ending since The Blair Witch Project.

However, while Blair Witch was 70-odd minutes of nothing happening to people we didn’t care about, so the crap ending came as something of a relief and the main disappointment was at the waste of an evening and the cost of two cinema tickets, with Kill List the opposite is true. This is a terrific film (or rather, this is 98% of a terrific film). Everything up to that ending is great because up to that ending we are impressed at the originality and the diverse range of weirdness happening on screen. We are impressed - as we would be with any finely wrought, complex, convoluted narrative - that a writer has crafted a tale which weaves all these ideas together and will make sense of them at the end.

But implicit in this adulation is the assumption that the writer will make sense of things at the end. And this, Ben Wheatley and his wife/co-writer Amy Jump singularly fail to do. Watching Kill List is like seeing all the theatrical preamble to a large-scale magic trick and then just as the magician raises his magic wand - the curtains close and the house lights come up. In other words, it’s a con, a swizz and a rip-off.

Here, we venture unavoidably into the realm of spoilers, so beware:

Gal’s new girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer) carves a symbol in a hidden spot in Jay’s house. Why? Along with several other later actions by Fiona, no explanation is offered except that she is part of the pagan cult/conspiracy.

We never find out who Jay and Gal’s employer is, nor why he wants these people dead. That’s not such a problem; it’s not the driving force of the film or the character’s motivations. These are two men doing a job - nothing more, nothing less. The second kill is of a man involved in some sort of violent underground pornography ring (possibly kiddie porn) although it is unclear whether the others on the ‘kill list’ are also involved or whether this is coincidental.

The first victim, a priest, accepts his fate and says ‘Thank you’ before being shot. Ooh, that’s mysterious. Will we ever find out why? No.

The second victim goes further, enthusiastically thanking Jay with every agonising crunch during a violent - but far from exploitative - prolonged torture scene. Some reviewers have been shocked by this but it doesn’t linger, it’s technically clever, it’s not gleeful in any way, and it is frankly a lot less disturbing than similar stuff shot for a fraction of the budget eight years ago for The Last Horror Movie. What is more significant is that this victim, when Gal is out of the room, praises Jay like some sort of celebrity. What is it about Jay? What is going on here? We will never find out.

A major problem with the plot is that very little attention is paid to the folder of documents and photographs which Gal takes from the victim’s safe (presumably to make the hit look like a botched burglary). This folder is all about Jay and Gal, it includes a whole dossier on something which happened in Kiev (frequently alluded to but never in sufficient detail for us to care about) and there are even photographs taken of the duo carrying out the hit on the priest a few days earlier.

This should have been a complete game-changer, a wake-up call that the two men are not just hired guns but somehow mixed up in a much bigger, more deadly and more personally relevant situation - but Gal doesn’t even show Jay the folder. He just mentions it in passing and they pretty much shrug and go, oh, that’s weird.

There are a couple of other situations which simply don’t ring true. On discovering that the next hit is an MP, Jay and Gal seem unconcerned. But a disappearing priest or a random bloke killed by a burglar are one thing, assassinating a Member of Parliament is quite another. Any investigation will be massive and much more likely to lead to their arrest - but they just accept it as Another Job.

The MP has a huge estate and it is here, bivouacked in woodland for the night, that our two leads are woken by a torchlight procession of 20-30 people, some naked, some in hooded smocks, some wearing wickerwork masks. This comes completely out of nowhere and although the downing of hoods identifies some minor characters we know, the significance or relevance or meaning of it all is glossed over. Incidentally, it’s never indicated whether any of the cult members is the MP in question.

And here comes the final problem with the story (non-ending aside). Jay and Gal start shooting the cult members. That’s two trained, professional killers, hidden among dark woodland in the middle of the night, armed with a shotgun and an automatic pistol, against a couple of dozen unarmed, brightly illuminated individuals. Yet not only can the cultists somehow see where the two hitmen are but the hitmen are unable to take out more than one or two cultists as the latter race unsteadily towards them across several hundred yards of rough terrain.

None of this is in any way believable or credible and none of it will be explained so don’t get your hopes up.

It’s worth for a moment considering the sine qua non of pagan-cult movies, The Wicker Man. One of the reasons for that film’s success is its careful structure. By the third act, Sgt. Howie (and hence the audience) has worked out what is going on. Then in that classic finale Howie (and hence the audience) discover that there is something even bigger going on. The Wicker Man actually answers more questions than it asks, because the actions of the characters are not only explained by Howie’s initial assumption but also by the reality. This is important: every single thing that anyone does or says in that film - however spooky, however random - can be seen, in retrospect to be part of the overall scheme to entrap Howie in accordance with the Summerisle beliefs.

The Wicker Man has a coherent narrative. And while not every film can be The Wicker Man, a coherent narrative is not too much to ask.

It’s worth also taking a look at the Kill List production notes. They won’t explain what is going on, but they offer some clue as to the problems with the film, which become more numerous and more significant the more one thinks about it (and that’s not good for a film which sets out to make its audience think abut it after seeing it!).

“Eight months after a disastrous job in Kiev left him physically and mentally scarred, ex-soldier turned contract killer, Jay, is pressured by his partner, Gal, and wife Shel, into taking a new assignment.”

Is there any indication in the actual film that Kiev left Jay “physically and mentally scarred”? No, there isn’t. As previously mentioned, it’s just referred to in passing a couple of times. Mental scarring? None that I could notice. He argues with his wife. Who doesn’t do that? Physical scarring? He has spurious lower back pain, that’s all.

“the [second] victim acknowledges Jay and thanks him for his fate. The shock and confusion are too much for Jay who viciously attacks the man.”

Nope, that doesn’t come across at all. Jay is already viciously attacking the man and everything indicates that his anger is based on the victim’s involvement in orchestrated child abuse. If Jay was shocked at being addressed directly and continually thanked, all he has to do is slit the guy’s throat and the bloke will shut up.

“As they descend into the dark and disturbing world of the contract, Jay begins to unravel once again – his fear and paranoia sending him deep into the heart of darkness.”

Again, this just doesn’t come across in the movie. Is this press officer hyperbole or was this the actual intention of the film-makers? Either way, it doesn’t match what is on screen. Jay certainly goes over the top but there is nothing to indicate this is anything other than a previously expressed utter hatred of kiddy-diddlers. There’s no sense of fear and paranoia, the very opposite in fact. Neither Jay nor Gal seem particularly bothered at what they are getting into, treating the job at all times like just another set of contract killings. If the above is what Wheatley and Jump were aiming for, they have missed their mark considerably. And even if they had nailed this aspect of the story, that would not in any way excuse the cop-out at the end, when it really looks like they just ran out of ideas.

Here’s a quote from a short interview with Wheatley in the press notes: “I’ve always loved horror films, but there seem to be so few that are actually scary. I wanted to make something that would make the audience afraid and unnerved. I sat down with Amy Jump and we thought about the things that scared us the most and then built the script around that. A lot of the sequences are built around re-occurring nightmares I’ve had since childhood. I thought that if these things scared me then - they would scare a larger audience.”

Therein, I suspect, lies the problem. Wheatley and Jump have prioritised scaring people over actually telling a good story. They have written the script as a ghost train ride: a succession of freaky, creepy events that has no actual continuous narrative thread and which stops arbitrarily when the car re-emerges into the fresh air. It’s possible to give a ride a narrative, as many of the bigger, better theme parks have found with their fancy-dancy 3D wotsits, but Kill List exhibits no more storytelling structure than you will find at Billy Bates’ funfair.

This is Wheatley’s second film after a thriller called Down Terrace. That received extensive critical praise but so has Kill List so I can’t see myself wasting an hour and a half of my life watching another of this director’s films. More interesting, and I think relevant, is that Wheatley was both director and writer on The Wrong Door.

Regular readers may have come across mention of this BBC3 sketch show before, in my review of Just for the Record. That film - inarguably the worst British movie released last year - was written by Phillip Barron, who was also a writer on The Wrong Door. Maskell, Buring and Smiley all have The Wrong Door on their CV, as do numerous other cast and crew. Ah, it starts to fit together...

The biggest problem with The Wrong Door, the thing which made it stand out as particularly shit and unfunny even by the dirt-scrapingly low standards of BBC3 sketch shows in general, was that it was clearly made by people with absolutely no understanding of comedy. The sketches were written to some sort of formula - incongruous character in normal situation or normal character in incongruous situation - and pumped out without any thought for whether they were actually amusing. It was production line ‘comedy’ made by people with no concept of what they were doing, like poor Chinese factory workers hand-painting unlicensed rip-offs of western TV characters. Just a mechanical process without thought or care.

And it is my conclusion that Ben Wheatley has here approached horror the same way that he, Barron and others approached comedy on BBC3. He has knocked together something that looks like a horror film - it has strange events and sinister characters and brief, brutal violence and a hint of the mystical or supernatural - and then he has given it a lick of paint and watched it sail off down the conveyor belt to be packed into a box and stacked on a pallette and lifted into a container and shipped across the ocean and unloaded onto a lorry and shelved in a warehouse and sold by a wholesaler and taken in a white van to a shop where everything costs one pound.

It looks like a horror film but it’s not a horror film. Because the purpose of a horror film is not to scare people. The purpose of a horror film is to tell a scary story. And a story has a beginning, a middle and an end. Wheatley has played a trick on people, making a stylish and compelling film which seems, for 98% of its running time, to be so good (and comes with such hype) that many viewers have developed a blind spot for the completely crap, run-out-of-ideas ending. It’s a common (and annoying) tendency among film/TV fans nowadays to praise poorly crafted stories and try to defend them by setting up straw men among critics and/or by creating extraordinarily convoluted explanations. Take a look at online discussion about most of the recent Doctor Who episodes and you’ll see what I mean.

I‘ve seen some ludicrous explanations for the shoddy plot of Kill List: Jay is the Antichrist; it’s all a dream; whatever... The truth is that it’s the Emperor’s new clothes. People just won’t believe - can’t believe - that the film doesn’t have a true and wonderful meaning.

Ah, the heck with it. That’s 3,000 words and I think I’ve made my point. Kill List is overhyped, over-rated and demonstrates that although the film’s writer-director may enjoy horror, he doesn’t understand it as a genre. The movie might work better if you lower your expectations. Don’t believe the hype.

The cast also includes Struan Rodger (who was the voice of the Face of Boe!) as the mysterious client, Esme Folley (The Horror of the Dolls) as a hotel receptionist, Sara Dee (Room 36, Zombie Office) as a newsreader, Alice Lowe (Liz Asher in Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace!), Ben Crompton (Going Postal, Doomwatch remake) and Twins of Evil’s Damien Thomas as a GP who is also in on the conspiracy (for some reason and in some way).

Cinematographer Laurie Rose does camera-work on The X Factor. Editor Robin Hill is the same Robin Hill who worked on Project Assassin (on which Wheatley helped out), Are You Scared and Pumpkinhead 4. Composer Jim Williams scored Philip Ridley’s Heartless and the remake of Minder.

One final point is to consider whether the film has any of the social relevance that characterises the best British Horror Revival titles? Well, yes and no. The characters’ lives, if not the characters, are solidly middle class and aspirational. Jay and Shel have a jacuzzi in the back garden and own a holiday cottage in the country. But we see nothing of their greater lives or their social situation. Where the film scores best is in its depiction of Jay and Gal’s bland existence in motels and travel lodges as they move around the country on their mission. But when, an hour in, the film-makers decide they’re bored with making a thriller and want to make a horror film instead, all that goes out the window.

MJS rating: C-
review originally posted 6th October 2011

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