With two movies to his name, British director Ben Wheatley has established himself as a master of relentlessly bleak, character-driven narratives with surprising flashes of comedy and multiple layers of subtext. “Kill List,” which follows dark comedy “Down Terrace,” feels like the apex of this approach, even though it’s only his second feature. Skillfully delivering a tense, violent story of raging hitmen while telling a much stranger tale beneath the surface, Wheatley blends formulas to create one of the richest texts on midlife crises to come along in quite some time.
“Kill List” may involve murder, religious fanaticism and guts galore, but these elements represent a universal conundrum. Jay (Neil Maskell), an ex-military man, struggles with his droll suburban existence while in constant deadlock with his needy wife Shel (MyAnna Buring) and attending to the needs of their clueless young son. Wheatley opens with a frantic argument between the couple and continues to turn up the intensity of their relationship until it becomes evident that he needs an escape.
Help seems to arrive with an offer from former army pal Gal (Michael Smiley), who wants Jay to join him on a cryptic freelance gig to kill a series of men for unknown reasons. From that point forward, “Kill List” grows increasingly ominous and surreal, not to mention viscerally shocking. With a ghostly soundtrack establishing the haunting aura, each kill unfolds with disquieting mechanical efficiency, as title cards announce their imminent deaths (“the preacher,” “the librarian,” and so on).
But while the job requires no passion, Jay’s finds catharsis in each target, resulting in a series of grisly death sequences that the frustrated man enacts “like a psycho on crack,” as Gal says. Look out for the hammer scene, one of the most frightening uses of a household tool ever put on camera. With every notch on the titular list, bodies burn and dead tissue flies.
If “Kill List” exclusively focused on these scenes, it would amount to little more than an exploitative peek-through-your-fingers ride. However, Wheatley drops the killings into center of “Kill List” while bookending it with two entirely separate genre exercises, leading to a disorienting experience that reflects Jay’s continuing sense of dislocation.
The questions pile up as Jay barrels forward. Victims thank him shortly before their demise, with one singling him out as somebody special. “Does he know who you are?” a battered man asks Jay when Gal briefly leaves the room. Does Jay? In lieu of reaching an epiphany, his life grows expressionistic and therefore subject to symbolic interpretation. A doctor assigned to look at Jay’s wounded hand ignores the injury and cites a Buddhist quote. Gal’s gothic wife stalks Jay after dark. Murdered animals turn up on his doorstep. Even when it starts to make sense, “Kill List” defies a single explanation; there’s only enough there to understand the fundamentals, but the answers are allusions.
The finale of “Kill List” has been compared to “The Wicker Man” for obvious reasons, but unlike Robin Hardy’s allegorical cult movie, the secrets of “Kill List” take on a personal dimension for its confounded protagonist. In nearly every scene, Wheatley drops clues to the literal mystery taking place behind the scenes, but “Kill List” should be viewed twice more for the nuances of character development than to better understand the big reveal. The impulse is to ignore pertinent details and simply marvel at Jay’s ability to channel his misery into rage. That makes “Kill List” a powerfully humanistic drama, loose brain bits and all.
Criticwire grade: A
HOW WILL IT PLAY? IFC Films releases “Kill List” at New York’s IFC Center this weekend, where it faces some competition from another indie horror film opening Friday, Ti West’s “The Innkeepers.” However, “Kill List” has received rave reviews and been available on VOD for several weeks, where it’s likely to find an audience in hungry genre fans. In Los Angeles it’s opening at the Cinefamily, with director Wheatley there all weekend for Q&As.