Sunday, 8 January 2012

KILL LIST


When I saw Ben Wheatley's Kill List at last year's Sydney Film Fest, I thought that it made the other horror films I'd seen there (Stake Land and Hobo With A Shotgun) look pedestrian by comparison. It seemed to me as I watched Kill List, with the memories of those other two films fresh in mind, that where they were treading some very familiar ground, this little English flick playing out in front of me was something original and exciting.

It was one of those rare times watching a movie when that little alarm goes off in your head... your eyes widen, and pulse quickening you sit up a bit straighter in your seat and think "wait a minute, I've never seen anything quite like this before". By the end of the fest it was not only my favourite horror entry, but favourite regardless of genre, beating out some other exceptionally good films such as Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins, Terrence Malick's Tree Of Life and José Padilha's Elite Squad: The Enemy Within.

That was back in June, and I wondered then if maybe I'd already watched the best movie I'd see that year. Six months later and Kill List has in fact turned out to be my favourite of 2011, and having seen it again recently I found it to be no less transfixing and haunting.


They say there's nothing really new under the sun, even in the realm of pure fantasy, where the sky's the limit and ideas should only be constrained by the extent of one's imagination (and in the case of cinema, the fatness of one's wallet). Where movies are concerned I think it's true to a certain extent, and there seems to be plenty of evidence around these days to support that claim, in the form of all the remakes, adaptations and sequels that are being foisted on us. In recent years, one method (or gimmick?) employed by a number of filmmakers seeking to inject some freshness into an original, but familiar story is the genre mashup, blend, crossover or whatever you want to call it. Sometimes it works, but often it feels too ham-fisted and ill-conceived to be really effective. Just because you clumsily shoehorn zombies and kung fu into your western doesn't mean it's going to be more exciting. To me the result is often that the whole is reduced to less than the sum of it's parts. Sometimes I'd rather just watch a good western... without the zombies. Or the kung fu.

And that's part of what makes Kill List so successful for me. I can't remember when I've seen a film combine disparate genres so seamlessly and with such a feeling of effortless fluidity. Especially given the nature of the film's structure - the different genres don't run parallel to each other so much as they are episodic, one following the other, almost neatly compartmentalised within each act of the film.

The first act is a classic example of British social realism, reminiscent of the "kitchen sink realism" of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. I quickly found myself so engaged by the seemingly mundane trials and tribulations of the main characters, that I honestly would have been more than happy for the film to continue in this direction, without veering into more fantastic territory:

Suburban couple Jay and Shel love each other, but in spite of that their marriage is rapidly falling apart. Shel is accustomed to a standard of living that they can no longer afford, because Jay hasn't been working. There's a sense that Jay is lost at sea and frustrated, despite the outward appearance of a stable, middle class home and family life. When the strain becomes too much, and comes to a very ugly head at a dinner party with Jay's old friend Gal and his new girlfriend Fiona, Jay is forced to reconsider his situation and take on a job that Gal is offering him.

This set up, which sounds mundane, is anything but. You see Jay and Gal aren't just old mates, they're professional hitmen, with a shady past that may include some very morally dubious mercenary work in other parts of the world. The two men prepare for their new assignment... but are unaware that Fiona may not be as naive and innocent as she appears.



From here the film shifts gears, turning into a gritty, deliberately paced hitman thriller, but the change isn't jarring at all, and in fact feels perfectly natural. It continues to feel fluid and natural even as events get more and more weird - eventually steering the film into it's third genre - outright horror. I'll give nothing else away, as I think it best to go into Kill List knowing as little as possible about the second and third acts.

I can find very little to complain about in Wheatley's second feature (I need to track down his first, Down Terrace). The performances are all virtually flawless, the whole cast of talented actors are obviously having fun, and really immersing themselves in their roles. Unsurprising, because as written by Wheatley and Amy Jump, the main characters are multi-layered, complex and endearing. The cinematography is right up my alley - carefully composed and framed shots imbued with plenty of stillness, giving the film room to breath and allowing each shot to sink in deeply.

Kill List isn't exactly bursting at the seams with action (again, think of my comparison to social realist cinema), but when the violence comes, you probably won't be ready for it, and it's likely to shock you. It's sudden, realistic and very, very nasty. It got under my skin and made me feel bad. Just the way it should.


If there's one complaint that I can level at this movie it's that I slightly preferred the tone of the first two acts to the overtly horrific climax, which is surprising considering my predilection towards horror. That said I still found the conclusion to be solid and memorable, so it's a minor quibble really, and didn't effect my overall enjoyment of the film.

With Kill List, Ben Wheatley has delivered a new and exciting cult classic. If you think so too, and if you ever meet Ben, maybe you'd like to say to him:

"THANK YOU"





Some of the runners up for my top film of 2011 include Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive, Miguel Ángel Vivas' Kidnapped, Jee-woon Kim's I Saw The Devil, Lucky McKee's The Woman, Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins and Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene.

11 comments:

  1. Sounds great, thanks for the write up ...

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  2. Good to see you back up and Blogging again ...I enjoy your Blog .... Hope your health is doing well.....
    Well a belated Happy New Year ...from the Doctor

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  3. Good stuff Aylmer - I've seen this film getting good notices but this is the first time I've actually read anything about it - it sounds really intruiging. I'm gonna track it down...

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  4. I, too, thoroughly enjoyed the first 2 acts. However I was less forgiving of the third as it seemed to be a mish-mash of one classic film with two (if not more) fairly high profile genre movies from the last 5 years. But its worst sin (IMHO) is that it breaks its climax breaks its own internal logic to the point where it doesn't quite add up unless you *really* make a stretch.

    It's hard to elaborate without spoiling it for people who haven't seen it yet. Definitely worth a look though my expectations were possibly too high.

    Your blog is great, keep at it!

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  5. Wes - you won't regret it!

    DRN - I'm pretty sure I know which classic film you're referring to, as well as one of the recent ones. I'd be interested to hear what the other one is. Email me if you can be bothered :)

    ...and thanks for the compliment!

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  6. Quality insights as usual, this film had a critical buzz, here in the UK but minimal screen support.

    I heartily reccomend Down Terrace it's in the vein of Tony/ Alan Clark.

    I myself saw Mike Leigh / Get Carter / Wicker Man in Kill List.

    Genre film gets no respect in the Uk and yet 28 Days cleaned up stateside.

    Methinks Kill List will be a slow DVD burner.

    If you have not seen Never Let Me Go by Mark Romanek then do so... a bit of ambient horror never hurt anyone. His first feature Static is also woth your time.

    I must also thank you for your efforts , there is so much digital detritus out there and so little time.

    Your ability to join the dots between high brow , low brow and no brow is on it!

    Whatever IT! may be?

    Too many people believe horror is an english language medium whilst those who 'care' know it is a global medium/genre.

    Ordeal/ Martyrs/ Inside and Frontiers normally do the job for the dilettantes.

    Australia at the moment is redefining noir / the crime flick. Animal Kingdom/Snowtown and The Square all come to mind.

    In your opinion, why is this?

    Nash Edgerton is a major talentin my humble but informed opinion.

    Anyway, enough from me, all the best to you and yours......keep on, keeping on.

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  7. Roachboy: thanks for your encouraging words, it means a great deal to me to get feedback like that, and I appreciate it!

    DOWN TERRACE is at the top of my must-see list. I agree that KILL LIST will eventually find a cult following on dvd.

    Your analysis of the film as Leigh/GET CARTER/WICKER MAN is perfectly in line with my own thoughts, it's nice to get some validation on that :)

    As for Romanek, I'm very fond of ONE HOUR PHOTO and have been meaning to watch NEVER LET ME GO for some time. I'd never even heard of STATIC, but I'll add it to my list. I still think it's a tragedy that his WOLFMAN fell apart. Oh well.

    I agree that we are producing some excellent crime flicks down here. ANIMAL KINGDOM was great and I've heard lots of good things about SNOWTOWN. Nash is a talent to watch. Another great recent noirish movie is NOISE, and Brendan Cowell (sp?) is a another superb actor/writer. Highly recommended.

    As to why the genre is so strong here at the moment, I've wondered that myself and I'm not sure. Perhaps due to the success of UNDERBELLY on TV (I really enjoyed the first season, good stuff, but the followups are crap). It could also be that our history has been a bit uneventful, so our criminal underworld provides some of the juiciest mythology.

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  8. Excellent take on KILL LIST. It does mix genre elements in an original way, and constantly rubs against the grain of narrative predictability.

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  9. Thanks for the recommendation. Watched it today and loved it!

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  10. I saw all of your other faves and enjoyed them as well, except for Kidnapped, which I just watched. Real grim and grisly. Liked it a lot.

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  11. The ending of KIDNAPPED is gnarly!

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