Tag Archives: warp films

Kill List (2011)

9 Feb

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.


This is significant.


Four Lions (2010)

15 Sep

If you’d witnessed the media furor surrounding ‘Four Lions’ and were sufficiently credulous, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the film is an exercise in bad taste akin to Pasolini’s ‘120 Days of Sodom’. In reality, the opprobrium heaped on the film came from those sections of the media that have had it in for Morris since his infamous ‘Brass Eye Special’ and were going to condemn it as a matter of course. Ironically, they did significantly less fact checking than Morris chose to in preparation for the film before writing their histrionic headlines.

‘Four Lions’ tells the story of a group of Muslim men in a Northern English town whose disenchantment fuels violent dreams of Jihad, but whose romantic notions of Holy War are disabused in a series of hopelessly botched plots and misadventures. Omar (Riz Ahmed) and Waj (Kayvan Novak) travel to Pakistan to prepare for the imminent Clash of Civilizations, much to the consternation of Barry (Nigel Lindsay) who, left to his own devices, hatches his own schemes and recruits wannabe rapper Hassan (Arsher Ali) to their ‘cell’. Meanwhile, Fessel (Adheel Akhtar) stockpiles peroxide in the garage of the house he shares with his unhinged father. It transpires that it was all bought from the same shop, but Fessel used a variety of ‘voices’ and ‘disguises’ to protect his identity. Fessel refuses to blow himself up, as it would upset his father, but instead trains crows strapped with explosives to fly at selected targets. With their training excursion to Pakistan ending calamitously, Omar and Waj return to the UK to put their most ambitious plan into action; to attack the London marathon.

‘Four Lions’ features a host of credible, understated performances from an able ensemble cast. Nigel Lindsay is spectacular as the truculent recent convert whose belligerence belies his piety. Riz Ahmed is the heart of the film, embodying the forces pulling young Muslims in opposing directions, the dichotomy of a generation born into Western liberalism but confronted by a burgeoning militancy in their midst. Kayvan Novak and Adheel Akhtar provide much of levity; their characters are not required to be much more than dim-witted and deluded, but they invest their roles with enough tragedy to prevent them from slipping into caricature.

Aesthetically, the film has a downbeat, unvarnished quality to it, mirroring the grimness of the characters’ surroundings, but also serving to ground them in reality and not allow the viewer to take what they see too lightly by piling on the usual facile trappings of the film comedy.

Nobody can claim that ‘Four Lions’ isn’t meticulously researched; Morris spent three years travelling across Britain, interviewing Imams, experts and ordinary Muslims to fully understand the subject he was about to tackle. Morris’s commitment to neutrality and authenticity is evident throughout; neither setting out to portray the central characters as helpless victims or a monolithic bunch of shrieking fanatics.

This approach is typified by the portrayal of Omar’s brother, who considers himself a moderate and decries violence, yet follows many of the less progressive edicts of Islam pertaining to the treatment of women. This refusal to either lionize or condemn, to coldly observe what transpires; adds extra resonance to the humour and makes the final moments all the more potent. By giving the lead characters an inner life and a diversity of reasons for acting as they do, Morris turns something that could have been crass and exploitative – Carry on Caliphate, if you will – into a thoughtful, uproarious and strangely touching take on the absurdities of faith and friendship.

Morris has made a career of going where other comedians fear to tread, an agent provocateur incurring the wrath of our ‘moral guardians’ for holding a mirror up to their hubris and hypocrisy. His latest offering is so special because it takes a difficult subject and broadens our understanding of it without ever becoming didactic.

In the same way that Morris’s ‘Brass Eye’ special wasn’t ‘making fun of paedophilia’, but was in fact a clever dissection of media hysteria and political opportunism, ‘Four Lions’ is more about provincial malaise than suicide bombers. It succeeds where so many ‘serious’ films about terrorism have failed because it understands its subject and has a firm grasp of what it wants to say about them, getting under the skin of people who hold such abhorrent views to such an extent that it goes a long way to demystifying them.

Not sure where Morris is here.