Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Review: Kill List: is rough tough enough?

A year on from a botched job, hitman Jay, is nursing a bad back and cruising along with his young family. He doesn't get a lot done at home apart from finding rabbits in his backyard which he home-slaughters, fries up with wine and eats from the pan while enjoying the sun on the lawn. His wife knows he's a hitman and wants him to stop all this moping around the house, make some money and get back into his trade. Sounds like a black comedy so far, doesn't it? Well, Kill List does have its intentionally funny moments but for the most part it's one of the most relentlessly unsmiling films I have seen since Eden Lake. Like Eden Lake, it's British, very British.

One night, Gal, ol' pal from the hitman circuit, comes by with his girlfriend for a dinner party where he offers Jay a job. It's a multi target hit with a big payday and the chance to make up for "Kiev". We never learn what happened in Kiev to send Jay into disgrace but watching most of the 95 minutes of this film we are led to make a decent guess at what might have happened. But something's wrong here.

The oddness begins with the contrary pull of the high gloss scope cinematography and the severity of the action, dialogue and performances. The resulting intensity ensures that we are completely embedded in the location and situation with the way out locked tight. I would never call this film theatrical but the sense that there is no normal life going on outside of any of its given scenes which borders on the claustrophobic. And then we get to the characters themselves. Each of the main players is granted a measure of warmth but it does little to endear them to us. These people feel real ... too real ... as real as the lift where your nightmares might gather you all together. The scene at the hotel restaurant where Jay "objects" to the A.A. meeting going on loudly behind them is very funny but also a frightening depiction of effortless intimidation.

Ok, so we have here a mean as mustard British crime film sold as a horror piece. Why? For most of the running time we get a series of blunt acts which are played with violence that is confronting but not so much that you'd call it horror. But then, interwoven throughout and heading for the big gear change in the finale, we get clear hints that forces beyond the human brutal ones are at work. This is mostly done through the meetings between the clients and the hitmen which are increasingly sinister and then the gratitude creepily expressed by the targets seconds before they are killed. But for me the most genuine shiver came from a silent moment about two thirds of the way through when a character appears well out of context, looking up at Jay in his hotel room window from the blowy black night of the street below. A creepy portent, though we don't yet know what it is pointing to. Another moment so creepy that it goes through you like an x-ray involves someone waving.

Another point of contrast that needs a mention is the use of full screen title cards that herald the hit about to happen. Stark white letters on black identifying the targets as THE PRIEST or THE LIBRARIAN. This at first feels too forced, like someone showing us he knows his old Scorsese and Tarantino movies (and their influences, of course). This eventually finds its place and is used right up to the final scene, often, through its sudden and stark contrast with the colour of the cinematography, jolting us into expecting something nasty. It doesn't get much nastier than the final card.

Most of the responses I have encountered about this film complain about the ending, saying that it is too abrupt a change in direction to sustain credibility. I'll confess to having the same misgivings when I saw it. There we are in severe verite land and then for the last few minutes of screen time we're in another film with no decent preparation. Too much happens without prior cause. And that ending ... WHAT?

Well, if you have read much of the content of this blog you will know that I profess a lot of tolerance for where a film wants to take me, and a resistance to obeisance to mainstream convention. So, why the whinge here? Indeed, why? Kill List liberally peppers its severe plot with hints that a bigger picture is going to develop later and that it will do so without the protagonist's knowledge or consent. His creepy aristocratic client even calls Jay and Gal cogs. So, it actually plays fair. So, what's my problem?

My problem is that I fell into the film's own trap by accepting the realist tone of its first and second acts and resisting the fantastic tone of its finale. Some commentators have suggested it is a dream and others an hallucination but really the only adjustment needed for the viewers of this film is patience.I don't mean patience with the apparently casual sharp turn the film takes at the end but the viewer's patience with him or her self. This is a piece that reveals itself only after it is over.

If you stare at a negative image for a few minutes and then suddenly look somewhere else you'll get a fleeting positive image. You can't keep it, it even seems to physically slide out of your view. But you can remember it and if you are quick you can recall details. Well, that's what this film is like.

The more I think of it the clearer my impression of its structure becomes. The first act is a failing equilibrium, a family wasting without outside nurture, consuming itself. The second is the solution as Jay goes hunting or questing. The third is a kind of apotheosis, a crowning as Jay is confronted with the consequences of his being very good at his job. If you've seen the film you might appreciate the understatement of that.

Perhaps its intensity leaves too little room for welcome. The characters are very hard to love; you need to be content to understand them rather than  concerned for them. The contrast with their scenes and the ooky kooky scenes of the mysterioso clients jars rather than intrigues which leads to the sensation of abruptness at the ending. But this is not Paranormal Activity which snatched mediocrity from the jaws of effectiveness for its ending. No, it's much more like Irreversible with its bludgeoning way, or Inside's eye-popping and quiet end following its onslaught, or Martyrs with its profoundly unsettling close that places all its unrelieved violence firmly in context (however uncomfortable that context is).

So, why am I forgiving it now when I made such moan on freshly seeing it? Time. Also, as we do with every piece of narrative art we get through, I remember it in reverse, from its extraordinary finale back to its ruthlessly ordinary opening

Kill List is a strange film that will probably be condemned to cult status at its highest. The refusal to streamline its two opposing forces will daunt anyone who expects a service industry approach to the stories they encounter. That's not a slight, just a caution. If you go into this film expecting something like Drive you will probably be left resentful. I do not love Kill List but I am beginning to admire it. Why, I don't know. It's like that last troubling conversation you had with a friend that you still can't work out and won't until you see them again. So that's what I'm going to do....


  1. I bought this from the UK but the Blu-Ray's pre-menu sequence included the choice of whether it was being viewed in the UK or Australia. Wary of even intra-regional issues with this format I called Australia home. No difference in the content beyond the badging. We got the pie-in-the -face MADMAN badge which I would say suggests that we'll getting our own release of this soon.

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