Kill List (2011)

Director: Ben Wheatley
Cast: Neil Maskell, MyAnna Buring, Michael Smiley, Harry Simpson, Emma Fryer, Struan Rodger.

Like a cheese and banana sandwich, Kill List exceeds expectations. It is a film more entertaining and gripping than it has any right to be, considering how many terrible British gangster films have preceded it. And, like a cheese and banana sandwich, it is difficult to categorise.

The plot:
Jay (Maskell) is a hitman. And he needs money. His wife (Buring) is becoming increasingly irritated by how little he contributes to the household and so Jay, along with his partner Gal (Smiley), accept a job to kill three people. On a list, no less.

The plot is a simple, but the film is not. Considering how little it gives away, the events that unfold should be mundane and trivial. Never is an explanation given as to why the client wants these three people dead. We are never told why Jay has been reluctant to get back to work after such a specific period of time. And the final scenes are all but a complete mystery, a Scooby Doo and the gang worthy conundrum.

And yet it works. The balance between British realism and unsettling surrealism is captivating to watch on-screen. Even in its warmest moments, Kill List is portrayed as being incredibly bleak, and devoid of warmth. Like a hipsters opinion of Twilight, or Coca Cola. If David Lynch were to direct an episode of Desperate Housewives, it would look a lot like this.

The direction is particularly commendable, Wheatley does a great job with his limited material and budget. Quick camera cuts speed up a lot of the domestic scenes. You’ll be fully aware this is happening, yet it is not excessive. It’s done in such a way that as much information is being delivered in as short a time as possible. In the more significant scenes, such as the killings themselves, he takes things a great deal slower. This is to allow the audience to take in the brutal, absolutely no holding back brutality of the hit men.

(If you have the chance, have a glance around during the second killing. See how many people are watching it through their fingers.)

The cast is all quite satisfactory, with the majority selling buckets of mysticism throughout. It is Jay and Gal themselves, however, who sit proudly atop this film, dominating it with their perfectly cast roles. Jay, like the film, comes off as a regular guy. He complains of back problems and plays with his son (Simpson) with toy swords. However, as the narrative progresses and things get more intense, so does his performance. While his outbreaks of fury are quite unsettling, it is his spells of eerie detachment which instill a sense of icy terror. Should you spill a drink on this man, he won’t kill you. He’ll simply look at you and make you want to kill yourself.

Gal, thankfully, adds a sense of gaiety to the mix. He is far less burdened with the kind of troubles than Jay experiences. He also possesses that particular Irish quirk, the need to diffuse intense or awkward situations with a good dose of humour. This is what a great deal of the humour of the film is built on, a relief of tension at strategically placed moments in the narrative. An encounter with a Christian religious group is a good example of this. If he were at a funeral, he’d be the guy asking loudly when they were all heading to the pub.

The film needs these occasional quips, because it starts cold and then proceeds to descend into far bleaker territory. It does not sell itself as a horror film, it feels like a dramatic thriller throughout. And this makes the final, blood curdling act so much more frightening, because it is so unexpected.


Kill List is thoroughly ambiguous. It is has a strong sense of realism, and yet it is as surreal as an octopus with a moustache. There is emotion beating throughout the film, but it is a raw and cold emotion. And it has a degree of humour, despite the very serious issues it deals with. It will keep you hooked right until the very finish, and, because of how little information it gives, it will leave you asking question long after the credits have rolled, like an exceptionally violent Lost in Translation.

Awful Rating: 9/10

They’re bad people…they should suffer.” – Jay

Shamelessly Awful Facts:

  • Injecting humour into tense situations may or may not be an Irish staple. It seems likely however, as we’re one of the few countries that sees a funeral as a chance for a piss up. And I’ve never met an Irish person who has never laughed in a library. If I were a hit man, I’d be massively unsuccessful because I’d probably try to find a way to rick roll my victims.
Published in: on September 9, 2011 at 8:24 pm  Leave a Comment  
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