Film review by: Witney Seibold
Not to sound like a bored cynic, but I have to confess that, very occasionally, I find myself getting tired of the handheld, you-are-there approach to certain types of filmmaking. Mostly of genre filmmaking. As cameras become smaller and smaller, shaky handheld camera movement seems to be proliferating. This has made for some immediate and impressive films made my ambitious filmmakers with the newfound means to express themselves in affordable ways. On the other side of the spectrum, though, you have films like Ben Wheatley‘s “Kill List,” a rather silly little crime thriller which distracts you from its doofy material through its attempts at kitchen sink realism.
For the bulk of the film’s first third, we only see Jay (Neil Maskell) and his pretty blonde wife (MyAnna Buring) bickering about domestic issues, money, and generally experiencing the quotidian grind of living in a stagnant domestic arrangement. She complains that he hasn’t worked in eight months. Jay’s yobbo buddy Sam (Harry Simpson) often comes over for dinner and the like, and said dinners usually melt down in a furor of awkward arguments and too much alcohol. Sam seems to work the same job Jay does. Had this been handled by a more skilled director of kitchen sink realism (of course Mike Leigh jumps immediately to mind), these scenes would have been a beautiful and painful end in themselves.
But Weatley has a mystery on his mind, and it’s soon revealed that Jay and Sam are actually professional hitmen who work for a shadowy cabal of graying white guys in suits. The glamor of assassination is bled out, as Jay and Sam are depicted as bored, unattractive working-class stiffs who feel about their job the same way embittered insurance salesmen may feel about theirs. Jay is the slightly less stable of the two, and very occasionally makes a larger mess than he should. Indeed, when faced with a child pornography dealer, Jay, a father, flips out and goes after others in the same pornography ring on his own. Sam is the one to calm him down. Recent movies seem to be asserting that pornography involving children is the single most heinous crime that humans could possibly be involved in, and it’s several steps above murder. Not that I will defend such horrible crimes, but… well isn’t murder also pretty heinous?
Sam and Jay do things professionally, if not necessarily well. That, too would have made an interesting film; the sloppy, warts-and-all life of none-too-bright working class hitmen. Had the film stopped there and been a slice-of-life drama about the lives of criminals, I would have been fine. The material could have had a more emotional edge; the handheld camera work does nothing to enhance these people, and, indeed serves as a barrier to looking at them up close. Weird that such an immediate style could have that effect.
But there is a further mystery, and that’s where “Kill List” begins to unravel entirely, to the point where you might find yourself staving off a powerful string of snickers. Each of Sam’s and Lay’s victims seems cheerful and grateful when they see hitmen at their door, and take a certain amount of glee in getting killed. I wasn’t sure if this was some sort of nihilist fantasy, or if there was a twist to come. It’s the latter. Our heroes, you see, run afoul of a “Wicker Man”-type sacrifice cult, bent on hanging virgins and claiming souls or whatever such cults are generally up to. Sorry, but I don’t buy it anymore. Such cults have been shocking since the original “The Wicker Man,” and shoehorning them into this unduly stylized action thriller doesn’t make them spooky again.
“Kill List” purports to style, but is about as shallow as its title makes it sound.