Kill List: Movie Review

Deeply edgy, gory crime film maintains perfectly calibrated tension before dropping a bombshell that will be too much for some viewers.

Director-screenwriter Ben Wheatley brings a fresh mystery and bite to the hitman genre, although a deeply weird twist and buckets of gore may throw more than a few audience members.

AUSTIN — A marked improvement in substance and technique over his well-received debut Down Terrace, Ben Wheatley's Kill List brings a fresh mystery and bite to the hitman genre. Art-house potential is strong unless early reaction to a deeply weird twist taints word-of-mouth; even in that case, the film will find enthusiastic support in some quarters.

Like Terrace, this effort combines familial dynamics with genre elements. Here, though, the domestic tensions are grounded in a more believable realism. Husband-and-wife military veterans Jay (Neil Maskell) and Shel (MyAnna Buring), now living as civilians with a young son and a sideline in contract killing, bicker about money and household repair, but their friction is heightened by an event to which the script only alludes: Eight months ago, Jay somehow botched an assignment in Kiev in a way that is shadowing both his career and his psyche.

Tension steps up a notch when Jay and Shel have longtime friend/partner Gal (Michael Smiley) and his new girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer) over for dinner. Ugly (but sometimes comic) spats and friendly reconciliations serve as backdrop for Gal's invitation — insistence, nearly — that Jay join him on a job involving three murders for a mysterious employer.

The ensuing assignment delivers solid crime-film beats, but the increasing nastiness of the targets with intimations of involvement with snuff films and child pornography pushes psychological buttons for Jay, who begins to take his work very seriously indeed: In one horrifically graphic scene, he uses a hammer to pound his victim so hard the body starts to come apart.

Jim Williams's score, incorporating mysterious chants and whistling, backward-played speech, and dragging strings, further cements a mood of dread and anxiety. Meanwhile the two actors convince us of a long history between the men that breeds viewer identification despite the terrible things Jay is doing.

From the start, the film drops clues (some subtle, some overtly cryptic) of a conspiracy deeper than the assassination contract itself — possibly one stranger than anything found in the familiar crime-flick universe. Wheatley shows remarkable agility integrating them into the movie's tone, and when that last-act swerve arrives, even its deep strangeness doesn't derail the movie's grim momentum. The climax's "what the hell?" factor escalates steadily, though, to a resolution that may leave audiences deeply divided. Even those who throw their hands up, though, may find themselves recommending this potent film to their more fringe-friendly acquaintances.

Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival, SXFantastic section (IFC Midnight)
Production Company: Warp X, Rook Films, UK Film Council, Film4, Screen Yorkshire
Cast: Neil Maskell, Michael Smiley, MyAnna Buring, Emma Fryer
Director: Ben Wheatley
Screenwriters: Ben Wheatley, Amy Jump
Producers: Claire Jones, Andy Starke
Executive producers: Robin Gutch, Katherine Butler, Lizzie Franck, Hugo Heppell
Director of photography: Laurie Rose
Production designer: David Butterworth
Music: Jim Williams
Costume designer: Lance Milligan
Editors: Robin Hill, Ben Wheatley, Amy Jump
No rating, 95 minutes