Displaying both a nasty edge and a playful sense of humor — but thankfully, never at the same time — Brit import “Kill List” is several cuts above its fellow midbudget horror brethren. Artfully made and sensitively acted, this is a slippery, teasing thriller that trusts its audience to follow the kitchen-sink marital quarrels as closely as the things going bump in the night. Though a left-field final reel might divide audiences, it’s an effectively twisted piece of work, and distrib IFC Midnight could turn it into a homevid/VOD hit.
Director/co-writer Ben Wheatley (making his second feature after genre-fest favorite “Down Terrace”) takes a thoroughly nontraditional approach to the horror genre, breaking its rules just as often as he hits its marks. One of the film’s most squirm-inducing scenes occurs at the very beginning and involves nothing bloodier than a phenomenally uncomfortable dinner party. The hosts of this party are unemployed ex-soldier Jay (Neil Maskell) and his Swedish wife, Shel (MyAnna Buring), young parents whose money woes have pushed their marriage to the brink. Their guests are jocular Irishman Gal (Michael Smiley) and his enigmatic new girlfriend, Fiona (Emma Fryer).
The film takes its time with this tense setup, the across-the-table fireworks and the gradual wine-fueled reconciliation — so much so that audiences may begin to wonder if they’ve wandered into Mike Leigh’s “Another Year” by mistake. After a good 15 minutes of this, Gal finally corners Jay with a business proposition — three assassination contracts for the two of them to take on, offering a big payout. The two are former contract killers, a plot point dropped in as though it were a minor detail, and here the film makes the first of several tonal shifts, moving from domestic melodrama to stakeout buddy picture.
Things get stranger and stranger as the two track their targets (announced by distracting title cards in the film’s biggest and most easily correctable misstep), while Jay tries to work things out with his wife. The film never plays up the irony of a ruthlessly efficient hitman also being a henpecked husband, and it’s precisely Jay’s paternal instincts that make him especially disturbing. After discovering a cache of snuff films belonging to one of their targets, the horrified Jay becomes a sort of moral avenger, and goes to work on the sicko with a hammer.
The things he does with this hammer will certainly be the pic’s biggest talking point, and deservedly so. There’s a particular well-served subset of horror fans who seek out and snicker through scenes of ultraviolent torture, and Wheatley seems intent on making that laughter die in their throats. There’s no gleefulness or sick humor here, just the essential ugliness of one human being doing awful things to another.
Though Wheatley can pull off a nail-biting setpiece quite well, the film’s main appeal lies in its details — the naturalistic banter between the partners as they kill time; the surprisingly tender moments between Jay and his son; Jay’s weary, capitulatory expression when his credit card is declined at a budget hotel room. (End titles credit the actors with dialogue contributions.) “Kill List” takes a final turn into bizarre “Wicker Man” territory in the later going, and while it scuttles the low-key believability of the rest of the film, one nonetheless has to respect its audacity in pulling out the rug once again.
All four primary thesps are excellent here, and HD lensing is atmospheric. The score hits some deafening, discordant notes to ramp up the tension, though it can be a bit distracting at times.