It isn’t often that this gets to be said, but it has been a terrific year for British cinema. Where the best this country could produce last year were abysmal ‘comedies’ like Wild Target, 188.8.131.52. and the painfully indulgent Another Year, two of the best films this year – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Attack The Block – have hailed from these shores, while even riskier projects like the Brighton Rock remake have turned out solid results.
Ben Wheatley continues that strong run of form with Kill List, a no-budget thriller that spans genres as readily as it breaks expectations. It is a difficult film to review because, as with The Skin I Live In, its success is magnified depending on how little the viewer knows going in. That’s an advantage which Almodóvar and, to a greater extent, Wheatley have over big-budget filmmakers, whose movies are already half revealed by the time they are released, courtesy of their extensive marketing coverage in print, trailers and festival previews. This year’s round of blockbusters has been so deeply predictable, either by having all their tricks revealed ahead of time or relying on nostalgia to the point having nothing new to offer for themselves, that when a film comes along which is genuinely surprising and challenging, it is no surprise that it becomes one of the year’s most memorable.
The only reason I hesitate from saying ‘one of the year’s best’ is because Kill List‘s ending is likely to prove highly divisive. There’s no doubt that it was a conscious choice to end the film the way it does and it is definitely not one of those situations where an ending cops out or betrays the rest of the story. If anything, it’s completely the opposite: it pulls a trick which creates a strong desire to go back and immediately watch the film over again to see if it can justify itself. Whether or not you feel it does will depend on you receive the film: I can’t say with any conviction that I am entirely sure of what it all means, but thinking back to key moments, that final act is foreshadowed well enough that I trust the filmmakers enough to believe it means something. It is an experience that demands a second viewing.
Even for those who don’t give the film’s conclusion the same credit, everything leading up to that point is mysterious and enthralling enough to justify the ticket price several times over. It does its best to prepare its audience for the ambitious finale by constantly toying with expectations, from starting as something approaching an urban British drama, shot in a grainy cine-verité style, with a family breaking apart under the strain of a traumatised soldier, Jay, returning from duty in the Middle East. It quickly takes a turn for the strange, however, once it becomes more clear who these characters are and, more importantly, what has been carved into the back of their bathroom mirror.
The set-up is deceptively generic: in desperate need of money, Jay and his best friend, a former colleague in arms called Gal, accept a job from a cabal of businessmen to knock off targets from a ‘kill list’. What quickly becomes apparent is that neither the targets or the businessmen are what they should be and there’s every chance the list has been catered specifically to the two assassins. If you are wondering, it’s not a revenge story, nor an ’employers turn on their employees’ situation, but something more insidious and sinister. Questions are raised over Jay’s sanity, but then again, as much as the whole situation could be a projection of his shattering mind, it could also be something inflicted upon him in the present: many events occur which the audience are witness to but neither Jay or Gal are aware of. At every step, the film seems a step ahead of expectations and sadistically rejoices in confounding them.
The film’s realist trappings make Jay a sympathetic lead even when undertaking acts of astonishing violence or being thrown into the most unbelievable circumstances. The first act takes the time to create an honest portrait of the struggles of a family who love one another but are being torn apart by outside stresses. It’s the little disputes which give that credibility, from Jay’s sneering dismissal at a dinner party of his wife serving up gravy in a measuring jug (“Looks like a chemistry set”) or her anguish at him ignoring her shopping list to spend their money on vast quantities of alcohol instead. The strangeness that slowly creeps into the story is all the more unsettling for the fact that it has no place in what, by that point, seems to have set out its stall as a family drama.
That observational trend also brings a great deal of honesty into Jay and Gal’s friendship, which occupies a significant proportion of the movie as the two travel together to fulfil their contract. Interspersed with Gal’s attempts to keep Jay under a measure of control as events spiral out of it, they exchange the kinds of jokes and banalities that best friends do. Jay expresses his distaste for hotels which don’t have wrapped-up soap in the shower, and the two argue several times about the limits of Gal’s religious beliefs. The dialogue’s natural flow is no doubt down to much of it being improvised by the cast (who are duly credited) – there’s no stylised Tarantino patois here. The pair also fight – although being the people they are, those fights involve smashing things over each others’ heads and the exchange of full-force punches – but are best friends again moments later. Neil Maskell (Jay) and Michael Smiley (Gal) share a great deal of chemistry – there is never any doubt that the two characters are the sort of people who would become friends.
Having written as well as directed, Ben Wheatley’s best move was fully developing the character story while leaving ominous gaps in the mystery narrative for the viewer to interpret. Though we are given full insight into how Jay’s family life operates, important information about what happened during his past as a soldier and key things that he sees while undertaking the job for the businessmen are held back. Just as Jay is thrown into disarray by the disconnect between what he thinks he knows and how the reality seems to be in constant flux, so too is the audience kept on edge by what they are allowed to see and what they are not. Regardless of how you feel about that ending, it is a filmmaking tour-de-force that Wheatley ensures feels completely deserved.
Kill List is out now in the UK. It will be distributed in the US by IFC Midnight but does not yet have a release date.