Ben Wheatley first came to the public’s attention with online videos like ‘Cunning Stunt’, which went viral in short order. Wheatley quickly progressed to TV, directing ‘Modern Toss’, ‘The Wrong Door’ and the fifth series of ‘Ideal’. In between all this Wheatley also had time to direct his first feature, ‘Down Terrace’ (2009), a slow-burning thriller that is equal parts ‘Sexy Beast’ (2000) and ‘The Royle Family’, or a Shane Meadows crime saga. ‘Kill List’ takes a similar tack to ‘Down Terrace’, framing the action in a domestic setting, exploring themes of masculine identity, of battle-hardened men struggling to come to terms with the quotidian world.
‘Kill List’ tells the story of Jay (Neill Maskell) and Gal (Michael Smiley), two soldiers-turned-mercenaries who are still reeling from a botched job eight months prior. Jay and Gal are offered a new assignment by a shady group, requiring them to dispose of a series of seemingly unconnected targets. The realities of the job test the limits of Jay and Gal’s friendship as they and their loved ones are plunged into a morass of corruption and uncertainty.
There is a sombre efficiency to the – no pun intended – execution of ‘Kill List’ that perfectly fits its subject matter, an absence of irony that harks back to a time when crime films strove to deliver something more than empty thrills and knowing homage. There is a refreshing lack of flashy set pieces designed to outline the director’s technical prowess, occurring seemingly independent of the overall narrative and removing one from reality; the violence in ‘Kill List’ is integral to story and character progression and exists to underline the ugliness of taking a life.
Because ‘Kill List’ is violent. Very violent. Almost unbearably violent at times. But the overall effect, much like Alan Clarke’s ‘Elephant’ (1989), is to inure the viewer to what they see and make the actions of Jay and Gal seem run-of-the-mill, enabling us to see it with the same distance as they do. It is a bold approach; playing with our expectations and forcing us to examine our responses when the dust settles. There is also some elemental horror of early ‘70s vintage that delivers genuine tension and peril, a rare commodity in the Torture Porn epoch.
Smiley, best known as the mercurial bike courier Tyres in the cult ‘90s sitcom ‘Spaced, proves himself to be an accomplished dramatic actor; bringing ease, assurance and economy to his interplay with Maskell, who is a revelation as a man succumbing to his bestial impulses, for whom reality is grey and uninspiring after all he has seen and done. The film’s success hinges on the lingering tension between Jay and Gal, an enduring bond that is both sustained and undermined by their knowledge of each other, and it is brilliantly played out.
‘Kill List’ is at turns bleak, nihilistic and elegiac, examining with grisly clarity what soldiers do when they are rendered ‘extraneous’, when there are no more honourable battles left to fight and they are left to the harsh realities of the market. Wheatley succeeds in deconstructing two genres without recourse to the usual tropes, creating the most compelling British thriller for some time. There really is no telling where Wheatley will go next.