Ben Wheatley is a relatively new talent in Britain in the last several years who has a focus on gritty crime stories. His first feature film was “Down Terrace” which was a crime picture with a similar plot theme as “The Departed.” It was well received and applauded for its acting and dark humor. His second feature film “Kill List” builds upon the crime genre and spins it into something different altogether. When you first hear the title “Kill List” and then learn the general plot, the first assumption is to settle in for a potential cliché-ridden crime movie. Happily this film bucks convention and releases a satisfying mash up of genres, crime and horror in particularly.
When we first meet Jay (Neil Maskell), we are presented with a bit of a rundown, child-faced family man. He takes painkillers for an injury unknown to us. He argues hatefully with his wife Shel (MyAnna Burring). During their fights, he hides out in his garage and smokes cigarettes alongside his unused exercise equipment. His relationship with his wife is schizophrenic at best. At first, the arguing is quite jarring and may be too unidentifiable for most people. However as the film progresses information about Jay and his wife is leaked slowly through the first act. You get a handle one why they fight and they are not just regular everyday people. They have military backgrounds and can handle themselves passionately.
After a rather seemingly directionless beginning involving marital strife, a dinner party with his old friend Gal (Michael Smiley) and his new date Fiona, we are introduced to two varying pieces of information, one that involves crime and another that introduces an ambiguous horror aspect. Jay and Gal were hitmen partners until sometime in the recent past a job in Kiev went wrong and they are now retired. With a new opportunity brought about by Gal, coupled with Jay have monetary problems they decide to do a quick three person hit contracted by an unfamiliar organization. As they go upon their hired business, each kill comes with more and more uneasy information. The organization’s omniscience becomes grander and Jay and Gal’s fate eventually take bizarre turns until the story spins into a surreal and powerful conclusion.
The mash up of crime and horror works here as Wheatly treads the line nicely. It comes off as a bit strange at first however as the movie goes on it settles in nicely. Much of this is due to Jim Williams’s stark music composition. It’s jarring orchestral cues cut deep to help influence the tone of the film. It helps create an unsettling atmosphere in the start and then really rounds out the rest of the movie. This is definitely music that belongs to the horror genre but is also used effectively during the violent crime scenes.
Jay and Gal’s relationship is the other main part of the movie. They get each other. They have been through it all. They know each other’s pressure points and breaking points. They can get in a fist fight one minute and be sharing the drink the next. Gal knows when Jay is getting upset and he knows how to laugh at it. There are several defining scenes of their relationship throughout the film but the most entertaining and telling scene is when they are trying to have a quiet dinner in a hotel restaurant and they are interrupted by a religious group singing. You see Jay starting to boil with anger and Gal is laughing because he knows how angry Jay is about to get. It’s a great bit of insight furthering there comfortability as friends. When it comes down to doing their assignments Jay has a man-on-a-business trip way of going about his work and Gal almost has a spiritual or moral feeling to his job.
Wheatley states in the commentary that the roles were specifically written with the actors already in mind. Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley are a great pair together. Neil’s strength is his ability to show simmering anger below the surface to eventually boiling over uncontrollably. He makes a convincing and scary killer. Michael on the other hand plays it cool and also has the ability to help quell tenuous situations with his slothful demeanor and street smart intelligence. The commentary also reveals there was a large amount of the actors improvising their lines during some of the more intimate scenes and it works to the films benefit. Their back and forth dialogue has some great genuineness.
Wheatly’s themes in “Kill List” cover friendship and family at its core but the strong themes involve never knowing all the information and how pieces fit together. There is uncertainly in life and you will experience it. There are undeniably influences of past films as “List” has flavors of “Eyes Wide Shut” and “Race with the Devil”. It ends up being an effective mix. It never falls into generic territory due to the tonal shifts with music and revealing scenes that pull the audience’s expectations into different directions. Much like Alexandre Aja’s “High Tension”, “Kill List” is about the experiencing the journey and how it unfolds.
“Kill List” was shot in a 2:35 aspect ratio using a Red One Camera. The Blu-ray is encoded with MPEG-4 and looks very clean and spotless. There are many dark scenes in the film and there is no noticeable compression blocking. The coloring scheme of the film ranges from a grayish style to vibrantly rich greens in certain nighttime scenes. There are multiple shots where there is fire against the pitch black of night and it is not a problem. There is an incredible level of detail seen here which leads to a very satisfying viewing experience.
There are several different options here with the main one being the English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. There is a LPCM 2.0 English track but for the best experience the former is the best selection. Sound effects are powerful and clear. It does take some getting used to the actors accents but it is presently clearly and realistically. Where the sound really excels is the score. From its heavy bass lines to the disconcerting high pitches, it is an enveloping experience. During the first few scenes, I tested the subtitles and they appear right in-between the picture and widescreen line.
There are three commentaries on the disc with the best one belonging to director Ben Wheatley and writer Amy Jump. From the outset you can tell they are proud of the film and excited it was made. There is a fair amount of laughing throughout and they provide a good balance of behind the scenes info and insight into the story and how it morphed into the final product. This is one of the better commentaries that I have listened to. There are also commentaries by the producers and actors but they tend to be a little dry in comparison.
Clocking at around 8 minutes, there is a “Making of” which is mostly comprised of talk-less behind the scenes footage accompanied by the film’s musical score. Not terribly insightful stuff.
Several separate interviews with the director, producers and actors Neil Maskell and MyAnna Buring are also featured in the extras. This is more standard fare with not too much additional insight.
Lastly there is a theatrical trailer for the film.
“Kill List” is an intriguing film experience, one that I can say felt new and fresh by mixing several genres into a coherent, albeit ambiguous story. There are certainly unanswered questions that are left up to the viewer to chew on. Things may become clearer with multiple viewings; however, there is ultimately participation needed from the viewer’s imagination to help finish the film. This is what elevates it beyond any generic traps it could have fallen into. This is not disposable celluloid; it will stick with you afterwards. The Blu-ray presentation is first-class with clear HD picture and a fantastic soundtrack. Extras are a little light but with a strong director commentary track, this disc is highly recommended. You should note that there are scenes of strong realistic violence, so the squeamish should proceed cautiously.