SXSW is known for its rambunctious vibe, but nowhere is it wilder than in the SXFantastic section. A genre-heavy slate of five films programmed by Fantastic Fest and Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League, this sidebar of midnight titles has quickly developed a reputation for crowdpleasers. (Last year’s breakout hit, “Monsters,” sold to Magnolia Pictures for the biggest deal in the festival’s history.) Two of this year’s selections, both world premieres, do an especially good job of maintaining that tradition.
“Kill List,” the sophomore effort of British director Ben Wheatley following his dark comic crime drama “Down Terrace,” displays an impressive level of storytelling skill while also indulging in extreme shock tactics. Wheatley focuses on violence-prone ex-soldier Jay (Neil Maskell), a man seemingly tied down by his boring life with his moody wife and seven-year-old son. Emotionally disturbed after a bad professional experience in Kiev, Jay gets a chance to reinvigorate his career when his old friend Gal (Michael Smiley) stops by for dinner and proposes that the two of them go back to their old ways as contract killers.
Still reeling from a dinner table argument with his wife, Jay readily agrees and the bloodshed begins. Their mysterious assignment contains a list of three names, people identified by their professions and little else. Without looking for context, Jay quickly unleashes his raging-killer side and begins to cross names off the list, employing a number of brutal methods that leave even Gal a little unnerved.
At first, “Kill List” follows the duo through these killings with disquieting, almost matter-of-fact pacing, but eventually the plot takes a sharp twist into seriously deranged territory. Littered with the grotesque images of a man murdered by a hammer and another holding his own intestines, “Kill List” has plenty to satisfy gorehounds, but there’s a much more satisfying dimension of human behavior that allows it to transcend cheap thrills.
Continuing a process he first displayed with “Down Terrace,” Wheatley uses Mike Leigh’s style of organic character development to deepen each interaction. (The actors are credited with contributing additional dialogue to the script.) In the sad asides that Jay and Gal share when discussing their increasing dissatisfaction with life, and the tragic exchanges Jay shares with his wife, Wheatley finds the makings of a tense melodrama.
The narrative works so well on that level that it’s practically a letdown when Wheatley abruptly shifts gears in the final scenes, heading in a bizarre, inexplicably cryptic direction that turns “Kill List” into a certifiable horror movie. Regardless of whether this transition works, it’s effective in its ability to track the dissolution of one man’s sanity.
League has made it possible for Wheatley to stand out by programming “Kill List” in a section tailor-made for horror fans. That’s not to say that SXFantastic only goes for dark horror outings; there’s plenty of room for ecstatic, giddy experiences as evidenced by “The FP.” Directed by brothers Jason and Brandon Trost, this certifiably looney campfest takes place in an exaggerated version of Frazier Park, Calif. (“Shit’s tough in the FP,” the slogan goes), where gangs compete for geographical domination by competing in a bastardized version of Dance Dance Revolution.
Shamelessly recycling the crass adrenaline rush of 1980s American blockbusters, with references to “The Warriors,” “Robocop” and many others, “The FP” is loud, furious and recklessly funny. Even when the relentless genre indulgences grow repetitive, the ride maintains a mad and infectious rush from one frenzied scene to another. (The filmmakers even held a competition to drink the caffeine-enhanced alcoholic beverage Four Loko prior to the screening, a feat matched only by last year’s salt-snorting antics before the premiere of “A Serbian Film.” Don’t ask.)
Despite their unfocused energy, the sibling directors stay true to formula. After dancing champ BTRO (Brandon Barrera) — pronounced “bee-tro” — dies in a duel against a rival gang leader, his younger brother JTRO (Jason Trost, sporting an eyepatch seemingly lifted straight from Snake Plissken) goes into isolation for a year before making a comeback to restore order in the FP. He reconnects with an old crush (Diane Gaeta) and begins training for a fast-paced, toe-tapping rematch with his late brother’s old foe, the mohawk lunatic L Dubba E (Lee Valmassy, sporting a ridiculous gold grill).
Although patently absurd, sometimes to tiring extremes, “The FP” contains glimmers of creative ingenuity in its fantastical representation of videogame culture. And the dialogue, which turns bro-speak into a virtually indecipherable new language, never loses its appeal. (Some samples: “There’s gonna be an off-the-frizz party tonight;” “You’ve always been more than a slash on my list, yo;” “Check a look at this”). No matter its inanities, the movie is certainly a wonder to behold; it’s an indulgent work of pop art that affectionately mocks its influences and never lets up.
HOW WILL THEY PLAY? “Kill List” has attracted buyer interest and will likely do well on VOD if it winds up with Magnolia or IFC’s genre labels. “The FP” could also succeed on that platform, but it screams for further cult status if the filmmakers can tap into the built-in audience of gamers.
“Kill List”: A-
“The FP”: B+