United Kingdom. 95 minutes. Directed by Ben Wheatley, 2010. Starring Neil Maskell, Michael Smiley, MyAnna Buring, Emma Fryer.

Jay is a former soldier turned hit man recovering from a disastrous mission in Russia. With the urging of his professional partner Gal and his wife Shel (who also manages his jobs), he accepts an assignment from his shadowy employers to kill three men. When Jay and Gal discover that one of the targets is involved in an apparent conspiracy involving pedophilia and child pornography, Jay briefly goes rogue and investigates the conspiracy on his own–discovering that, somehow, the targets may have tighter connections to his employers than he’d assumed…and that his own employers are involved in stranger dealings than he’d bargained for.

I love a good crime movie, and over the past couple of months I’ve had the pleasure of watching several damned fine movies that examined the bloody territory where violent crime and horror intersect. I’m very pleased to add Kill List to company that already includes the brilliant Sushi Girl and sublime I Saw the Devil.

Ben Wheatley’s sophomore effort (he would go on to do the “U is for Unearthed” segment of The ABCs of Death and the well-received Alice Lowe/Steve Oram vehicle Sightseers) isn’t as raw as Sushi Girl or as thought-provoking as Devil but it makes up for that in that particular form of madness that’s unique to the English psyche–not to mention a willingness to poke at the “lad culture” that’s become fashionable over the past decade and a half or so. Wheatley and writing partner Amy Jump take their time getting to the meat (both literal and metaphorical) of the story, focusing most of the first act on the characters of Jay, Shel and Gal–along with Jay and Shel’s young son Sam and Gal’s new girlfriend Fiona–and how they relate to each other. In particular, Jay’s reluctance to return to the field in the wake of whatever happened in Kiev, and how it’s damaged his marriage, his family, and his relationship with his best mate.

The film moves a bit slowly during this phase but I think it’s absolutely essential that we understand Jay’s instability and social dynamics before he and Gal take on the assignment. Once there’s work to be done Kill List shifts into high gear, providing vicious violence that doesn’t lose the emotional boot-to-the-head amidst all the blood, culminating in a third act that brings the weirdness front and center. Wheatley handles all the disparate elements with grace and deftness, providing a little bit of something for everyone–character development, gore, metaphorical kicks in the gut and some very creepy moments. It says a lot about Wheatley’s skill that one of the most disturbing moments isn’t when Jay beats a pornographer to death, but what that pornographer says to Jay (“Thank you”) before his demise. As graphic as that scene is, it isn’t the viscera that’s the dominant image of the film, but the sight of dozens of people wearing masks fashioned from sticks. And the last five minutes of the movie will make you feel like someone implanted a large lead brick in your stomach.

I walked away from Kill List mightily impressed with Wheatley’s storytelling and image-crafting skills but I don’t want to take anything away from the top-drawer cast he’s assembled to sell the story: Neil Maskell as Jay, Michael Smiley (Spaced) as Gal and MyAnna Buring (The Descent, Downton Abbey) as Shel all do fantastic jobs painting complex characters who are both vicious and charming at the same time; they’ve also got fantastic chemistry with each other. (Smiley and Buring’s experience as comic actors almost certainly helps here.) The supporting cast is also engaging and memorable, particularly Emma Fryer as Fiona and Struan Rodger (Doctor Who’s Face of Boe) as Jay and Gal’s sinister, cryptic employer.

While Kill List isn’t entirely devoid of flaws–particularly a somewhat incoherent action sequence leading into the story’s climax–it’s still a remarkable piece of work that establishes Wheatley as a name to watch. It’s way too easy to complain about the state of modern horror, but the presence of young new talents such as Wheatley prove such complaints are hollow.

KILL LIST poster

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