There are horror movies that jump out at you from the first scene and grab you by the short and curlies before the title even hits the screen. Then there are the horror movies that sneak up to you, deliberately lulling you into a false sense of security before pulling the rug out from under you, so that while the overall scare count is lower, the big moments cut deeper (think Audition or the original version of The Wicker Man). Kill List falls into the latter category and the blood thirsty viewers at The Toronto Film Festival’s Midnight Madness program are sure to find themselves coddled and devastating, leaving the theater feeling like they’ve been chatted up and punched in the face. It’s a good flick, one that should find itself a healthy cult audience upon theatrical release. Hit the jump for the review.
For the entire first act, Kill List almost feels like a kitchen sink tale of British misery, the kind played to perfection by filmmakers like Mike Leigh and Alan Clarke. We’re introduced to a middle-aged married couple mid-argument. The husband Jay (Neil Maskell) has been out of work for 8 months and their bills are piling up while their bank account drains away. His wife Shel (Myanna Buring) berates him for buying copious amounts of wine for a dinner party instead of toilet paper, but that booze is put to good use when his friend Gal (Michael Smiley) and his mysterious new girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer) arrive. An ugly screaming match of a dinner unfolds and as a result, Jay agrees to go back to work with Gal. The catch is that they end up being hit men and their latest job proves to be a bit darker than expected when Jay is required to provide a little blood for the contract and the first assignment on their kill list is to take out a priest. Revealing more would be unfair, but rest assured that a terrifying cult is involved.
The film comes from director Ben Wheatley who made strong debut with his zero budget crime/comedy Down Terrace that liberally mixed genres like it was going out of style. Kill List is a similar beast, transforming from harsh family drama into a viciously violent hitman tale, and finally into a possibly satanic horror movie (which was really hanging in the background all along for those paying attention). However, Wheatley doesn’t play with genres to create a self-conscious cinematic mixtape like Quentin Tarantino or Edgar Wright. It’s merely a means of misdirection. He knows that audiences will expect a movie to turn out a certain way based on genre expectations and uses that to lead them down false paths. When the first blast of violence occurs via a blunt hammer and a welcoming skull, it hits hard. The scene would be a standout shock even if the entire film had been bloody up until then. Without warning it feels twice as harsh and suddenly you don’t trust the filmmaker. When things enter full on horror mode in the last act, there’s a total uncertainty about where things could possibly go and when the finale arrives you’ll feel shattered. It’s brilliantly structured and for a writer/director only in his sophomore outing, this is a remarkably confident, controlled, and brutal piece of filmmaking.
In a way, Kill List is a horror movie almost by default. It’s certainly chilling and even scarring, but not exactly what you’d expect from a movie with that label slapped on the box. For one thing, it’s shot in a handheld realist style with improvised performances. That’s not the expected aesthetic and tone of the oft-storyboard genre, but it’s in the unexpected where the best scares lie and the movie is filled with the unexpected in every conceivable sense. I doubt Kill List will be embraced as a genre classic. It’s just too weird and twisted for that and by design leaves the audience feeling abused and battered when the credits roll, an experience that understandably not everyone enjoys (personally, I’m somewhat of a glutton for punishment when it comes to this shit). However, for those willing to take the ride, I can promise you’ve seen nothing quite like it and cult status is all but assure. Sure, there are bits and pieces of Kill List that are reminiscent of other films and genres, but they’ve never been combined quite like this before and the culminative impact is pretty impressive. If you want to feel worn out, beaten, and ultimately elated by a film, you’re not going to do any better than Kill List. This is one for all the intelligent sick puppies out there who don’t mind seeing cinematic ingenuity and gag inducing gore magically mixed together. Those folks are going to cheer and vomit with sheer delight.
For all of our coverage of the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, click here.