Rewatching Kill List (2011): Ben Wheatley’s Occult Horror

If you’ve tracked Ben Wheatley’s career you’ll have seen a director honing his craft and receiving recognition for it. From his early work like Down Terrace (2009), with its notably low budget filmmaking aesthetic, to his latest bigger budget interpretation of J.G. Ballard’s High Rise (2015), Wheatley has consistently shown that he’s an excellent, skilled, and creative filmmaker.

Somewhere in the middle of his body of work sits Kill List, a disturbing yet inspired horror film about two former British soldiers turned assassins for hire. Military pals Jay (Neil Maskell, Utopia) and Gal (Michael Smiley, The Lobster) live quiet suburban English lives, Jay is married, and Gal is a middle aged bachelor. But, this is all a front, and both men take on violent jobs if the money is right.

The Father, Son, and Mother

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A rare, quiet moment between Shel (Buring) and Jay (Maskell) in Kill List.

Kill List opens with an ugly argument between Jay and his wife, Shel (MyAnna Buring, Hyena). They argue about Jay buying wine instead of toilet roll, the hot tub he bought but can’t complete because there’s no money left, and the fact that he hasn’t worked in 8 months. This domestic scene is accompanied by a series of establishing shots of a typical housing estate, placing the film firmly within a British setting. These symbols and tropes are recognisable, making the film that follows even more unsettling.

Jay and Shel have a young boy, and he seems used to his parents fighting. But Jay is quick to apologise, handing his son a cheap plastic foam sword bought at the local supermarket. Jay has one too, leading to a sword fight, further cementing the theme of conflict within the film. When Gal arrives later that evening for a dinner party with a new girl, Fiona (Emma Fryer), on his arm, armed with news of a potential job, Shel wants Jay to take it. The pay will more than cover their debts, and it seems like an easy way out of the financial position they’re in.

Gal’s arrival is a welcome one. But only briefly. Over dinner tensions resurface and Shel and Jay fall out once more. However Jay does agree to take the job and the promise of future money dispels much of the ugliness. In the background however, Fiona sneaks off to the bathroom and carves what looks like an occult symbol on the back of the bathroom mirror. It’s clear that not everything is what it seems, and this job might not be the golden ticket that Shel hopes it to be.

Driven By Conflict

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Army pals Jay (Maskell) and Gal (Smiley).

The dinner party too is a depressing experience with a sort of M&S pre-cooked spread laid out by Shel. The conversation is mostly verbal sparring, with everyone hinting at but not actually saying what they mean. Shel rejects Gal’s offer to say grace, another theme that emerges as the film progresses. Christianity is either derided or ignored at several key points in the narrative.

But the most overt theme driving Kill List forward is conflict. Every scene and sequence seems to lead on to an argument or a violent outburst, and even the bed time story Jay tells his son is about his time as a soldier in Iraq. Each character’s back story furthers this theme; Shel served in the Swedish National Service, Gal’s and Jay’s military experiences, and Fiona’s job in HR, firing underperforming staff members.

Bad Luck Comes in Threesfc-kl-hanging

When Jay and Gal meet with the client (Struan Rodger, Game of Thrones’ Three Eyed Raven), things take a darker turn. The client, seemingly a cult leader, needs three people killed and to seal the deal he slices Jay’s hand with a knife, wanting the arrangement to be inked in blood. Jay laughs it off, but as the film progresses his hand becomes infected, spreading across his body, resulting in him taking opiates to deal with the pain. This adds a hallucinatory layer to an already confusing narrative, and Jay becomes increasingly primitive in the way that he handles the kills on the list.

In terms of the composition, the cinematography is consistently overlaid with a dark tint. DOP Laurie Rose, who went on to work with Wheatley on Sightseers and High Rise, saturates the shots with drab greys and cold colours. This makes for an uncomfortable palette, one imbued with hopelessness and despair. This is paired with an ominous bass heavy and over powering score ensuring that there’s little relief in the makeup of the film.

Then there’s the unpleasant mise en scene. From animal guts in the garden, to Jay’s bandaged up hand; to dead animals, and dismembered paedophiles; Kill List doesn’t let up and there’s no respite for any of the characters or the audience either. With each scene leading to a moment of conflict between Jay and the rest of the world, it’s an exhausting and often excruciating film to watch.

Strange Bedfellows

Wheatley’s Kill List is tonally similar to a number of British horror films. It reminded me of Christopher Smith’s film, Black Death (2010), with its nods to the occult and paganism. It also shares similarities with the Wolfe Brothers’ film Catch Me Daddy (2014). Narratively Kill List uses many of the same horror genre tropes from The Wicker Man (1973). But, for me, the most striking comparison is between Wheatley’s film and Shane Meadow’s Dead Man’s Shoes (2004). Both exist within a little England setting, honing in and focussing on the dark and frightening potential of the secret feral lives of small villages and towns in the North of England. 

Then there are also allusions to American films like Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999). This is seen mostly in terms of the cult and its mythology, the masks they wear, and Jay’s unwitting descent into their way of life.

Kill List reminds us that there are people out there who visit terrible violence on others. It tells us to lock our windows and doors, and it makes us fearful of each other. It’s a nasty film with a dark heart and its terror is infectious and unsettling. Wheatley explores the hideous potential of humankind, the madness and psychosis that’s fermenting just below the surface, and shows us a primitive world, full of occult symbols and sacrifices. It’s a place where God can’t save you; a true horror film that sticks in your guts.

There are plenty of interpretations for Kill List, and the ending is a difficult one to fully process. It’s certainly a film that benefits from repeat viewings, and there are several ways to read the narrative, especially due to the symmetry. Many early scenes foreshadow later ones. But, at its heart it’s a compelling film, and it shows that Ben Wheatley is an excellent director with a distinctive eye for storytelling.   

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