Stylish, Bizarre ‘Kill List’ Challenges Genre Preconceptions

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No votes yet Oscarman rating: 3.5/5.0
Rating: 3.5/5.0

CHICAGO – Ben Wheatley’s “Kill List” comes to U.S. shores on a tidal wave of hype and controversy. Is it the work of a genre-defying genius or an inconsistent jerk? Are the film’s jarring tonal shifts effective or idiotic? Honestly, and I know critics aren’t supposed to say this, I can see both sides of the argument. On one hand, Wheatley take some serious risks here and some of them are to be admired. On the other, “Kill List” often feels disjointed and weird just for the sake of weird. It just barely works for me by virtue of its audacity but I wouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t do the same for you.

“Kill List” is at least three films in one. It’s designed to light message boards on fire as to what it’s “really about” and the hidden meanings of a film that seems relatively straightforward at first and ends anything but. The first act seems like a standard British drama with a squabbling couple in increasingly dire financial straits. Jay (Neil Maskell) is a former soldier who is now a hitman. Clearly, something recently went very poorly on one of his jobs and the mental stress has turned him into something of a prick. He yells at his wife (MyAnna Buring) and seems distant when he’s not abusive.

Kill List
Kill List
Photo credit: IFC Films

One night, his friend and hitman partner Gal (Michael Smiley) comes over for dinner with a woman named Fiona (Emma Fryer). The mundane situation turns angry relatively quickly and Gal reveals that he has a new job for his troubled friend. It will require three murders. Before she leaves, Fiona goes in the bathroom and carves what looks like a satanic symbol on the back of the mirror, hinting at weirdness to come.

The relatively straight drama now becomes a sometimes ultra-violent hitman movie with an odd undercurrent. Jay’s first target is a priest who thanks him for shooting him in the head. His second is a librarian for child pornographers who also thanks Jay as he’s getting brutalized in ways that should have some theatre goers heading for the door. Hammer meets knees. Hammer meets fingers. Hammer meets head. Tarantino would say it’s too violent. And then “Kill List” gets truly wonky as the final act turns into a horror movie in ways that I not only wouldn’t spoil but that I’m not sure I can fully relay. Let’s just say it gets WEIRD and I think it’s that oddity in the final act that has given the film the hype it brings stateside. “Kill List” has cult movie written all over it.

But is it any good? Sometimes. Wheatley deserves credit for trying something as batshit crazy as “Kill List” in the first place but I’m not convinced that it adds up to much at all. In fact, I’d wager that even Wheatley couldn’t tell you what it’s “all about.” A brief message board hunt turns up some hysterically all-over-the-map theories about what “Kill List” means including theories that it’s all about consumerism or a commentary on war.

Kill List
Kill List
Photo credit: IFC Films

“Kill List” falters somewhat by virtue of Wheatley directing Smiley and Maskell to mumble their way through most of the dialogue. It’s OK to have a movie that makes little sense on a narrative level but the confusing aspects of the film shouldn’t have been carried over to character and dialogue. You can’t hear what they’re saying half the time and you won’t care the other half. And Jay is such a weird character. We need to like him to have his journey into Hell connect with an audience but we never do. He’s an enigma, a device in the machine and that makes the film more of an exercise in style than substance.

I think that Wheatley is experimenting. He’s playing around with style, form, and storytelling. And I find that aspect of “Kill List” interesting enough to barely recommend the film with the serious warning that you probably have no idea what you’re in for. Heck, I’m not sure the people who made it have any idea what exactly they made. I do know that you won’t see a film like it this year. You can decide if that’s a good or a bad thing.

“Kill List” stars Neil Maskell, MyAnna Buring, Michael Smiley, and Emma Fryer. It was written by Ben Wheatley and directed by Amy Jump and directed by Wheatley. It was released in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre on March 16th, 2012. content director Brian Tallerico

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