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Review: Ben Wheatley's Kill List, starring Neil Maskell (Tiff 2011)

Sep. 20, 2011by: Chris Bumbray


PLOT: Jay (Neil Maskell) is a former mercenary, getting over a brutal mission in Kiev that's left him shell-shocked and unable to work for eight months. His best friend, Gal (Michael Smiley), a hitman, convinces him to help him out on a job, where a mysterious client (Struan Rodger) gives them a list of people to kill.

REVIEW: KILL LIST is director Ben Wheatley's highly ambitious follow-up to last year's DOWN TERRACE, which took an intriguing, comical kitchen sink approach to the traditional British crime film. I actually only caught up with DOWN TERRACE about a month ago, but I thought it was an inspired piece of lunacy, which immediately put Wheatley's sophomore KILL LIST highly on my list of priorities for TIFF- where it was shown as a part of 'Midnight Madness'.


Sure enough, KILL LIST is an even better film than DOWN TERRACE. Although it's being marketed as a horror film, KILL LIST is really more of a psychological thriller, reminiscent of the original (good) version of THE WICKER MAN. Like most good films of it's type, KILL LIST is a slow burn, with the first third of the film being similar to DOWN TERRACE- where we get to know Jay, who's married to a beautiful former Finnish soldier (MyAnna Buring), with the two of them raising their young son in a tranquil suburban setting far removed from both of their violent pasts.

Having been traumatized in Kiev, Jay's been unable to work for a year, busying himself with odd jobs around the house (such as trying to fix his broken jacuzzi). His inactivity and the lack of money coming in is starting to take a toll on his marriage, with it coming to a head during a dinner party given for his best friend Gal (Michael Smiley), who, despite his chipper, happy go lucky demeanour, is a professional killer.

Eventually, Jay decides to take Gal up on his offer, with the hope of making some easy money, and this is where the film starts to get really dark. The minute they set eyes on the client, who insists on signing their contract in blood, thing begin to turn, and the two discover to their horror that they're becoming embroiled in a cult that practices human sacrifice.


From there, the film gets progressively darker and darker, climaxing in an ending that elicited gasps of horror from the packed midnight madness audience I saw this with. Like the best films of it's ilk, KILL LIST never stains credibility, and there are no supernatural undertones to the film whatsoever, which for my money makes it all the more frightening. At the same time, it's remarkably violent, with a particularly violent episode with a hammer being even more harrowing than a similar scene in DRIVE.

Like Joe Cornish, and Edgar Wright, Ben Wheatley is one of the more intriguing British directors to emerge in the last few years, and while it has a low budget, KILL LIST is as assured, and well-crafted as anything boasting twenty times the budget. The cast here is mostly made up of unknowns, all of whom are exceptional- just as they were in DOWN TERRACE.

In the lead, we get Neil Maskel, who manages to bring both the physical presence to the role needed to make him believable as a contract killer, and an emotional depth reminiscent of the great angry young man UK actors of years past, like Richard Harris & Albert Finney. The only challenge to audiences may be his thick Yorkshire accent, but this won't be a problem as long as it's watched in a theatre with good sound acoustics, and should be a non issue on DVD/Blu-ray.

As his cohort Gal, we get Michael Smiley, who not only played Tyres on SPACED, but also had a scene-stealing turn in DOWN TERRACE as a memorable hit man, who not only brought his son along to hits, but also had the most memorable line in the film (I'm not gonna hurt ya. I'm just gonna fuck ya in the arse and set your hair on fire). He's bloody brilliant as the upbeat Gal, and the relationship/camaraderie between him and Maskell was one of my favourite elements in the film. They're the kind of pals who could be beating the shit of of each other one minute, and then just chuckling about it over a few beers moments later. Smiley also bring a lot of humour to the film, which it sorely needs later in the film.

Of the terrific selections at Midnight Madness this year, KILL LIST was not only the highlight (although I missed THE RAID), but also one of my top five favourite films from the festival as a whole. I thought it was bloody brilliant, and gives further credence to the notion that Ben Wheatley is a future giant in British cinema. Luckily, the film has been picked up by IFC Films, meaning North American audiences will get a chance to see it before long. KILL LIST really is comparable to the finest psychological horror films of years past, and a new classic to fit in among the hallowed ranks of THE WICKER MAN and THE SHINING. But don't take my word for it. See it for yourself!

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