If you weren’t lucky enough to be in the FrightFest audience at the UK premiere of Ben Wheatley’s stunning Kill List stop reading this now, do not pass go, do not collect £200, proceed directly to the first available screening you can find. Seriously, just take my word for it, the less you know the better.
Right, now that those people have left we can proceed. Jay and Shel are a bickering married couple with a young son. Shel is frustrated that Jay has been mooching around their large house for seven months without work while their bank account dwindles. Matters come to a head when they can’t cover the cost of repairs to the jacuzzi Jay claims is a necessary expense due to his (possibly illusory) back problems. Potential relief comes when Jay’s friend Gal tells him of some available work with a significant fee attached. Jay and Gal are what is sometimes euphemistically referred to as “freelance security consultants” or hit-men. The two professional killers are given a “kill list” of targets but when one turns out to be a vile pedophile, Jay’s paternal instincts and simmering resentments cause him to go dangerously off mission. Gradually it becomes apparent that the two men have embroiled themselves and their loved ones in a dark and sinister plot.
Wheatley’s film is truly original. Initially the film appears to be a domestic drama, Jay and Shel are deftly characterised as a loving couple with some issues. These surface in a disastrous dinner party attended by Gal and his new girlfriend which ends with Jay erupting in a violent tantrum at his wife’s barbed comments about his being out of work. As the nature of Jay and Gal’s profession emerges, the film morphs into a hit man thriller with hotel room room rendezvous with sinister men carrying satchels of £20 notes. As the killers embark upon the kill list the film twists again with a pivotal act of sudden shocking violence, that was amongst the most painful scenes witness across five days of FrightFest. Up to this point, the film, while brilliant, looked to be a strange choice for Britain’s largest horror and fantasy festival, but as things become ever darker the film takes a plunge into full blooded horror territory and turns into one of the most genuinely frightening films of 2011.
Wheatley’s cast are spot on; as Jay, Neil Maskell essays a brilliant study in barely repressed fury. In one of the films best scenes, a group of happy clappy Christians decide to sit next to Jay and Gal as they have dinner in a hotel, despite the dining room being empty. When one of the happy evangelicals pulls out a guitar to sing a revival tune, Jay can’t take it any more and grabs the instrument hissing that “there is a place for this, and your place is somewhere very, very remote”. The scene is funny, but also hums with menace. As Gal, Jay’s more easygoing mate, comic actor Michael Smiley is very funny (to me Smiley is forever the raving cycle courier Tyres O’Flaherty from Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Jessica Hynes’ sitcom Spaced). Refreshingly Jay’s Swedish wife Shel (played by MyAnna Burning from The Descent, Doomsday and Lesbian Vampire Killers) is no doormat or gangster’s dolly bird. In a crucial but easy to miss plot point it is revealed that she is an ex-soldier. During their noisy and violent domestics, Shel goes head to head with Jay and is often as much the instigator as he is.
This really is a fabulous film, brilliantly shot, played and written. It both redeems the British hit-man thriller from the tiresome cockney geezer rut it has been stuck in since Lock Stock, and in its final third becomes the most frightening British horror film since The Descent.