Fans of both the horror and crime genres should most definitely check out Ben Wheatley’s film Kill List, as it stands out as one of the most disturbing and unsettling horror films of at least the last decade. It is also extremely violent in parts and not recommended for those with weak stomachs and an aversion to graphic gore.
The film follows the characters of a couple, Jay (Neil Maskell) and Shel (MyAnna Buring), and their close friend Gal (Michael Smiley), with Jay and Gal being professional hitmen. There are tensions in Jay and Shel’s marriage as he has not worked for eight months since a diastrous job he did with Gal in Kiev, the full details of which are never disclosed.
Jay is clearly deeply traumatized by whatever happened in Kiev and does want to return to the work he once did. However, tensions boil over and he is effectively forced back into work, with explosive consequences. The film follows Jay’s descent into madness and psychopathy as a creepy conspiracy against the main characters begins to reveal itself.
The film contains lots of subtext and undertones, as well as mysterious plot points which are alluded to but not fully drawn out, leaving them to the viewer’s imagination. Most interestingly for us it follows the decline of a person’s character from a deeply disturbed character who is falling, to a full blown evil character who is too far gone, fallen, such are the horrific crimes he has committed.
Therein the film contains some important lessons about evil and violence and how they relate to psychopathy. It is a brutal depiction of the old adage “You become what you fight” and draws out the corruption and degradation that committing acts of violence on others has on a person’s character and soul, regardless of whether they think that violence is justified or deserved.
Click here to view Kill List on Amazon.
Right from the start of the film we see problems in the lives of the main leads. The film opens with a blazing row between Jay and Shel about money, and straight away we feel we have walked in on something we shouldn’t have. Their young son can hear everything and we get the immediate impression there are problems with both the characters.
Neil Maskell is brilliant as a closed off, surly, henpecked husband. He is an Iraq veteran and this combined with the aforementioned Kiev disaster has clearly left him traumatized and broken. Early on we already see a brutalness and psychological aggression to his character, which suggests something is seriously off with him morally and psychologically even before the conspiracy begins to unfold.
However despite the attention on Jay, MyAnna Buring is equally excellent as Shel, a fiesty women who is at the end of her tether with her husband as their money is running out. We should not ignore the glaring problems in her character that are apparent as well. She seemingly has no problem with her husband being a hitman (initally on sabbatical) and bringing home the bacon by killing people.
She also seemingly has little sympathy for the trauma her husband has suffered and instead of truly helping him, her main goal seems to be cajoling him back into doing the very things that appear to have traumatized him to begin with.
She also humiliates him at a dinner party which they invite Gal and his girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer) to with a series of open digs at his character in front of the others, which leads to an explosive slanging match from which Gal finally persuades Jay to return to work and try another mission or “hit”.
That choice turns out to a seriously costly one as Jay’s character spirals down from that point into a deeply violent, psychopathic character. He and Gal become embroiled in a creepy conspiracy and find themselves unable to back out of the jobs even if they wanted to, and they are forced ever deeper down a dark and very bizarre “rabbit hole” of satanic cults and murderous rituals.
Neil Maskell plays Jay, a worn down, traumatized Iraq veteran and hitman who is drawn back into doing more jobs, with dark consequences
Psychology and Conspiracy Merge
The problems in the two main leads raise an interesting question as the plots unfolds and more sinister forces start to influence events. For sure once the “top down” conspiracy starts to take effect, Jay, Shel and Gal are fighting against outside forces, but what about “bottom up” psychology?
Is there evil and corruption not already present in their characters to being with, as evidenced by their brutal and unsympathetic behaviour towards themselves and each other? Both Jay and Shel are quite clearly “non believers” and don’t have any interest in the deeper questions of life, and are in fact openly hostile to Christianity at least.
At the aforementioned tense dinner party, Gal harmlessly asks if he can say grace, to which Shel replies “not at my table”, which strikes as an odd thing to say. People can be non believers but why the hostility towards religion? Similarly, there is the dinner table scene, where Jay aggressively puts down a small group of harmless Christians who are playing music and singing a little too loud for his liking.
On one level the scene is humorous and one could simply say that Gal was perfectly entitled to be irritated by the noise and make his feelings known. On the other hand on a more subsonscious level it may be that he can’t stand to see others happy, especially Christians, and this, rather than the noise itself, is what is “giving him indigestion”.
Gal alludes to this by remarking, almost enviously, “fuckin happy bastards” just before Jay confronts them and cuts their fun short. It appears the Christians have a happiness that Gal and Jay can’t ever have as long as they choose to kill people for a living and there is this constant undertone and juxtaposition of good versus evil and moral decline in a person throughout the film.
It is in this context of pre-existing moral issues in the leads that the entrance of an outside conspiracy needs to be viewed. The conspiracy is real and leads down some very dark roads, to satantic cults and human sacrifice. However it also appears that Jay is very specifically selected by this cult for his already corrupt moral character to begin with.
After the explosive dinner party fight which leads to Jay returning to work, Gal’s girlfriend Fiona does something creepy and at that point unexplained in the bathroom, which suggests something suspicious is going on here. Her exact role is not revealed until the very end but this is the start of outside forces coming in to manipulate Jay and Gal into a kind of “point of no return”.
It appears in some ways that Jay is already halfway towards being psychopathic anyway, due to his moral corruption and the violence he has already committed. But the satanic cult manipulate him into losing all of his humanity and becoming a full blown psychopath by drawing him back into a series of hits which he approaches with an ever more out of control and brutal violence.
Struan Rodger gives a brilliant performance alongside the leads as The Client, a malevolent middleman who traps Jay and Gal into a series of hit jobs that lead down deeper and darker rabbitholes
The conspiracy side of things is led by a masterful performance by Struan Rodger as “The Client”, a malevolent, slimy middle man who organizes the hits for others and pays Gal and Jay. His performance is truly superb and should not be forgotten alongside the main leads; his character projects pure evil but also a sense of absolute and utter control, much like the Teddy Bass character in one of our other reviewed films, Sexy Beast.
You wouldn’t want to mess with this guy. He gives off the air of being untouchable, protected by people in high places and able to pull strings to outmaneuver any tricks the guys might try to escape. When Gal asks what would happen if they abandoned the job, he simply replies “Then you die. And your families, they die”. At this point you know the guys have bitten off more than they can chew and this story is not going to end well.
Director Ben Wheatly superbly creates a sense of sustained tension and pressure and as the conspiracy deepens, the viewer feels trapped in the story with the leads, with a constant sense of dread and closing in. There are also many threads of the plot and the conspiracy in particular which are brought out but never fully explained, as it becomes clear the cult are watching Gal and Jay and know about their disastrous job in Kiev.
This adds to the feeling of uneasiness as the viewers along with the characters don’t know where all this is coming from or how deep it goes so we feel trapped in the story with them. The assigned targets bizarrely and creepily say “thankyou” to Jay and Gal before being brutally dispatched by them, giving the impression that they are pawns or sacrificial lambs for a deeper malevolent goal they are all committed to.
This is confirmed by the end of the film as we see that Jay has been carefully hand picked because he already has the pre-existing psychological attributes which can make him what the cult want to him to be. Once they single him out, they manipulate events to send him all the way over into full blown evil and psychopathy, leading him to competely sever the few connections he has and lose all sense of moral grounding.
When a film-maker has hardened horror film critics such as Nigel Floyd feeling they may have to leave because the atmosphere of the film is so oppressive and intense, he must know he is doing something right. See the embedded review video below for more on this. The film was rated by several film critics in their top ten films of 2011.
From Falling to Fallen
Kill List accurately traces Jay’s descent further and further into evil and violence, and in doing so raises some clever questions about good and evil and the issue of justice. It also portrays the pernicious effect of committing violence on a person’s psyche and we see evil as something which emanates from a series of choices a person makes.
Even at the start of the film Jay is clearly falling morally as a character. Despite an apparent humor and sarcasm at times he is really closed off emotionally and lacks any true support or compassion from those around him. His wife Shel just wants him to go back to killing people, hardly support for someone in his position.
As Jay and Gal progress further into the conspiracy, they uncover some things the targets are involved in which are clearly unsavory but which we are not privy to. Jay is disgusted by what he finds and feels from then on he is acting out of moral righteousness. In his mind this justifies the horrific violence he commits afterwards.
“It doesn’t feel wrong” he says at one point. “They’re bad people. They should suffer”. Maybe it doesn’t feel wrong to him at this point because he has numbed himself out to the corruption all the violence has caused inside himself. In his belief that he is doing the right thing he has lost all sense of morality inside himself.
The Buddhist view on this is particularly astute and on the mark on this – emphasizing the psychological corruption that a person has inside them once they have crossed the line into killing. From this viewpoint to murder another is to inflict deep trauma on oneself, which is very difficult to come back from. See the embedded video below for a pertinent discussion of this.
In the case of trauma it matters greatly whether a person has experienced horrible things or actively done horrible things to others. Those who have actively inflicted violence and warfare on others have a deep corruption inside them.
Maskell brilliantly portrays this toxic inner layer that develops in a person’s psyche as they cross the line into killing.
As his character declines we also see him becoming more and more aggressive and confrontational towards Gal, who is the far more controlled of the two and doesn’t see the jobs as a crusade. Their relationship becomes more and more strained and this is playing into the cult’s hands by further separating him from the few connections he does have.
By the end of the film he has clearly moved from falling to fallen, having been manipulated into doing something there is no coming back from. When he realizes the horror of what he has done, by this point there is not even any strong emotional reaction in him anymore. There is almost no point by now; he has nothing left. The “reconstruction” that The Client mentions earlier is now complete.
The full extent of the conspiracy he has been caught up in is revealed and his transformation from a deeply troubled into a purely evil person is complete. In going to any lengths to pursue what he thinks is right and justified he has sowed the seeds of the downfall of his own character and become the very thing he has set out to fight.
A Superb Horror Film
Kill List is a masterful example of a horror film, with Ben Wheatey creating a sustained sense of dread, threat and “closing in” with the combination of a well written script, great acting performances, unexplained unsettling plot threads and an ominous score. The realist edge he gives to the film further adds to the dread and suspense the viewer feels and makes the violent scenes all the more disturbing.
It also contains graphic explosions of violence as is not recommended for the faint hearted. However the violence is never glorified or condoned and in fact the film is clearly showing you the corruption and decline that results from all the violence Jay commits and the dark path he continues to go down.
In the process it is raising some important question about the nature of good and evil and the relationship between them, and also the nature of violence and justice. In committing what he thinks are good acts by delivering justice to evil people, he himself becomes evil, showing that he has a warped and shallow understanding of the subject.
He loses sight of the fact that regardless of a sense of moral outrage, revenge and a need for justice we may feel at the acts of others, to inflict trauma on another is to inflict trauma on oneself. Through repeatedly doing this he loses all sense of humanity and makes himself a pawn to become what his evil manipulators want him to be.
Kill List and Other Films by Ben Wheatley – Click to view on Amazon
If you like Kill List then here are a selection of Ben Wheatley’s other films. He has a very unique and distinctive style, often mixing dark humour with realist horror and graphic violence. See his Wikipedia bio for more of his films.