Kill List [AFI Fest Review]

on Sunday, Nov. 6th

If you are the kind of genre fan who’s game for knowing little to nothing about a film before you jump in then let me just tell you this about Ben Wheatley’s Kill List and then you can be on your merry way:

A hitman, out of the business to stay closer to his family is pulled back in for one easy job. Things go wrong in horrific and macabre ways. More than a little of the old ultra-violence.

There. Have fun. Come back when you are done to see if you agree with me.

For the rest of you who need convincing/warning, here we go.

Some screenwriting gurus teach that every act of a screenplay should be a world of it’s own. Wheatley and his co-writer Amy Jump take this idea to heart, to the point where Kill List feels like three films in one, each act becoming another step into hell for family man and assassin Jay (Neil Maskell). On edge and fighting with his wife Shel (MyAnna Buring) about their dwindling supply of cash, Jay is burned out when the film opens. Shel’s a hard one though, not only does she know about Jay’s career choices, she even provides a bit of ops support when not taking care of their young son.

It’s Shel that convinces Jay to go back to work with Gal (Michael Smiley) after a drunken row at a dinner party where the couple meets Gal’s new girl Fiona (Emma Fryer) who appears to be the only one at the table who doesn’t kill people for a living. Her job is merely to terminate them from employment. It’s a long, slow buildup, but grounded in such good scripting and acting that it’s possible to imagine an entire film– or cable series– about the home life of hitmen.

That’s when Wheatley changes all the rules. It’s jarring, as a heretofore unused title card technique smashes in to announce the codename of the first target. Quickly Jay realizes that they are eliminating the elements of a pornography ring that is trading in material so horrible– we’re spared the details, one of the few mercies in a film that pulls almost no punches– that he’s inspired to go off list and do a little self-directed equalizing.

The movie has given us some violence by this point, but it’s at this turn where it becomes clear that we’re in dark, bloody territory. The banality of Jay’s domestic experience (and the banality of evil is a STRONG theme this year at AFI Fest) makes the violence all the more intense even when it’s photographed in the best of genre traditions.

I will leave out the secrets of the third act, although I will point out that I’ve placed a lone clue in the lines above for the astute student of the history of genre films. If you have the stomach for blood and rage– and what genre fan doesn’t– then Kill List will not disappoint you with the dark twists it has in store. That it is grounded in a naturalistic style and supported with well crafted characters and dialogue only serves as evidence that genre fans are enjoying one of the great epochs of the strange. The filmmakers of today have a century plus of the craft to pull upon to craft their grisly poetry, and Kill List is quite the sonnet of the macabre.

Kill LIst directed by Ben Wheatley, written by Wheatley and Amy Jump. The film screens again as part of AFI Fest 2011 presented by Audi tonight, November 6th, at 8:00PM.

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