PLOT: Two hitmen find themselves immersed in a very strange mission when it becomes clear their latest targets are not who they appear to be.
REVIEW: KILL LIST comes to the US armed with an arsenal of positive buzz and glowing festival reviews. One of those "don't know anything before you see it" type affairs that comes along too rarely, the film - from DOWN TERRACE director Ben Wheatley - unfolds like a nightmare punctuated by startling twists and searing psychodrama.
KILL LIST's opening drops us straight into the scene of a domestic melodrama; a heated argument between Jay (Neil Maskell) and Shel (MyAnna Buring), something we quickly gather is a common occurrence. Jay is an Englishman prone to sudden bursts of ferocious anger, and his Swedish wife is equally combustible. As it is with many relationships of this sort, a tender reconciliation is waiting at the end of the noisy dispute. (A nervous child listens silently in the next room, also not uncommon.) The major source of the couple's disagreement is Jay's work - or lack thereof. For the past eight months, Jay's been doing nothing more than focusing his attention on an unfinished jacuzzi and stewing over the memory of his last gig in Kiev, which did not go well at all. You see, Jay is a hitman, and he may not be cut out for the job anymore.
Of course, an opportunity arises in the form of a new gig, coming in the hands of Jay's associate and best mate, Gal (Michael Smiley). A "kill list" of just three names, combined with a dollar amount of a most satisfying size, proves too good to turn down. Jay sees an end to his financial woes and, more importantly, the miserable funk he's wallowing in.
After meeting with their gig's orchestrator, a sly, shady man with the odd ritual of initiating a blood oath with his new employees, Jay and Gal set about tracking down their targets, the first of which is a priest. Business as usual for the casual killers, until some curious behavior from the marks prompts an investigation into just who these people are - and what they've done to deserve their fate. Jay in particular becomes consumed with the case, and gradually builds himself into a heedless rage. Leaving gory messes in his wake, Jay's already tenuous psychological state becomes further compromised by the disturbing evidence that there's something quite amiss with the new assignment, and the veteran hitmen find themselves in the middle of an ominous puzzle that is ushering them toward an unthinkable darkness.
It won't be revealed by me where this all leads; one of the film's pleasures is its capacity to surprise and mystify. Wheatley teases us and his characters with little bits of information, leading us down one path before switching gears and changing direction. We often think we know what's going on, only to uncomfortably discover we're wrong. With a steady, unnerving drone, the soundtrack broadcasts certain dread throughout, and Wheatley expertly infuses every scene with a sense of impending doom. It's a movie designed to put you on edge, and keep you there until the bitter end.
About that end... A person's opinion of KILL LIST will likely be made or broken by the film's conclusion. The last ten minutes upend our perception of what's really been going on, dizzying us. No matter what your interpretation, however, of KILL LIST's final moments - is Wheatley just throwing us into a sea of random surreality, or does everything add up? - there's little doubt that the final swath of bizarre images will stick to your memory like a glue trap. I'll admit that it took me well over a day to let KILL LIST fully work me over; it's the kind of picture that one has to allow to sink in. After some time has passed, you might have a fresh interpretation of what you saw, or think you saw. I know I needed that time to truly appreciate its wicked charms, but even if it doesn't ultimately make its ominous heart available to you, you can't deny it's rather unforgettable.
Wheatley's cause is aided by a cast that is nothing short of tremendous. Maskell's Jay is an anti-hero through and through, a man we should detest, but as he's our guide on this disturbing trek, we've got no choice but to side with him. Maskell's got a magnetic brutality similar to Ray Winstone; you fear the fucker, but you'd love to have a pint with him. Michael Smiley is a more calming presence as Gal, whose expressive face transmits a "too old for this shit" weariness; the actor's affability shines through worn exterior and gives Gal a humanity that complements Maskell's pitiless iciness. For her part, MyAnna Buring is an extremely strong presence; Shel is perhaps the most mysterious person in the film, and Buring captures her dodgy character perfectly.
These performances are ochestrated effortlessly by Wheatley, who with KILL LIST announces himself as a filmmaker to keep a close eye on. Perhaps even one to fear; the man is looking to twist up your insides, and he can obviously do it with pitiless efficiency. We should be grateful for the gutting.