Kill List (2011) – Instant Hitman vs Occultist Classic…
In the year of our Lord, 2012, most screwed-on Westerners are aware that the Catholic Church is the most institutionalized hive of nonces and kiddy fiddlers in the history of mankind.
This is interesting from a British perspective, because as a nation who forcibly battled and rejected Catholicism in its middle-past, our national conscience has found other ways of repenting. Most notably is cinema – our flicks must rank amongst the most confessional and penitent movies in the world.
As an Englishman living abroad, I socialise with many nationalities, and some of my best friends are American. One thing you will never hear an American expat say is; “America’s a fucking dump, and I couldn’t wait to get out of that shithole.”
I am English and I’m proud of our weird little island, our closeted hypocrisy and our liberalism (with a very small “l”, of course). The longer I spend abroad the more grateful I am for my country and its idiosyncrasies, although I never want to live there again. The people are generally decent, but when put in situations with other human beings, they tend to act like absolute cunts.
British cinema has had its ups and downs. British Cinema – a quick word association brings to mind Powell & Pressburger technicolour extravanganzas; blackly nostalgic Ealing comedies; Kes; Hammer Horror; Carry On; Get Carter & The Wicker Man; Lean & Kubrick; Chariots of Fire & Gandhi; The Full Monty & Trainspotting; Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, Ray Winston & Jude Law; Guy Ritchie and the subsequent plethora of A Right Royal Cockney Barrel Monkeys.
It has had its ups and downs, but one thing that is consistent in British cinema is our handling of the low-end Crime thriller, often matched with another prevalent theme of British culture – under-the-counter, brown-paper-bagged, grubby sex.
Hunter S. Thompson maintained: “[Rape mania] rides on the shoulder of American journalism like some jeering, masturbating raven.” For British journalism, you can substitute rape mania for paedophilia, and as the recent revelations of the BBC’s complicity in the Jimmy Saville scandal shows, our media figures are not always just wanking, they’re getting stuck in.
When you review movies, you’re always cross reference what you’re watching with other things, always looking for connections and influences.
While I was watching Kill List, the starkly brutal, hard-as-nails and blackly comic second feature from up-and-coming Brit director Ben Wheatley, I thought of Fonejacker.
In one memorable skit, arch prankster Kayvan Novak called up a local community centre with a decadent European accent, trying to rent the place for “a meeting of the minds and meeting of the bodies.”
The lady on the other of the end pauses, stammers, and confirms: “It’s an orgy, then?”
She’s not budging, though. Although the character called Mendoza wants the venue on a Wednesday, when there’s a crescent moon, she’s got it booked for the regular OAPs, who play bingo that night. Even an elaborate offer of 25,000 Euros won’t shake her devotion to the dabber-wielding duffers.
For me, that scene perfectly encapsulates the peculiar schizophrenic British culture; a buttoned-up attitude towards sex finding a cheeky voice in naughty postcards, Page 3 Girls, dirty jokes, Dick Emery, Carry On and Nudge-Nudge Wink-Wink, and the illicit fascination with everything perverted, kinky, occult and obsessive.
What is the opposite of shining? Kill List is an [opposite of shining] example of the grotty, low end, crime thriller meets occult horror that us Brits do so well. That is not to say our American cousins can’t do dark and nasty – Kevin Bacon was criminally under nominated for his turn as the nonce with the heart of gold in The Woodsman, and The Pledge gave Jack Nicholson his best role since his heyday.
But for every Woodsman and Pledge, there are endless trivialisations of the theme, especially when American filmmakers try to appropriate and remake our darkest crystals. Incongruous casting of Sylvester Stallone and Nicolas Cage in remakes of Get Carter and The Wicker Man are perfect cases, when big, buffoonish names divert the attention from the self-flagellating originals.
Conversely, the Americans are happy to fictionalise the stories of their worst criminals, particularly serial killers – Psycho found inspiration in the perversities of Ed Gein, and Charlize Theron won plaudits and numerous awards for her portrayal of Aileen Wuornos in Monster. Oliver Stone riffed on the Badlands legend with his psychedelic, vicious Natural Born Killers, the polar opposite of the humdrum banality of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.
Fascinated though us Brits are, we find something impolite about making movies about our worst monsters and criminals. The Krays, Ronnie Biggs and Mickey “Bronson” Peterson have found their way to glamourised film fame, but Moira Hindley, Fred West and Peter Sutcliffe have not – as titillated as we are by heinous crime, we still prefer to keep our ghouls chained up in the cellar.
So, finally, Kill List. You know it’s a worthwhile movie when it takes you on a thousand word tangent before you get down to actually talking about the movie itself.
Ex-Army nutters living in suburban English boredom doing hitman stuff is never comfortable viewing, although it is compelling. For many UK viewers, it won’t take six degrees of Kevin Bacon to link themselves with characters like Neil Maskell’s Jay, which is one of the most frightening aspects of this superior occult crime thriller. The knee-jerk comparison is Get Carter meets The Wicker Man.
The other most frightening aspect of Kill List is the way it opens, an uncomfortable dinner party [what is the opposite of party?], burrowing deep into Mike Leigh-style, kitchen sink social unease. Jay is ex-Army, living in a big house that has seemed to outstripped his means with his beloved son and his waspy wife, Shel (MyAnna Buring). Jay hasn’t worked for months; they’re running out of money, and the pressure is starting to show.
Attending the dinner party is his best friend and former squad buddie, Gal (Michael Smiley) and his new girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer) – she claims to be an HR manager, although her decision to etch an occult symbol on the back of their bathroom mirror and snaffle some bloodied tissues suggest she isn’t exactly telling the truth.
After a party-pooping barney and wine-fuelled reconciliation, Gal persuades Jay to take the good old fashioned “one last job”. There’s a list, and there’s three names on it. The anti-Butch & Sundance don’t know who they are whacking, or what they’ve done to deserve it. But the jackpot is nice, and it might make up for a non-specified bodge job they were involved in over in the Ukraine. “The Two Musketeers”, Gal keeps saying, as if a third was lost in Kiev.
The two pals set off on the job, occupying anonymous hotel rooms in anonymous towns. Another strength of Kill List is its grounding in mundane surroundings – most English towns look exactly like every other English town, or to put it unkindly, like a roundabout with a PC World, Burger King and Tescos in the middle.
Even in the age of blanket CCTV scrutiny, this sense of being lost in a nondescript urban/suburban nowhereland makes it very believable that anything can happen behind closed doors and closed curtains. Like toe-rags who skive off school and kick around in pub car parks, garages and the dead spaces of estates, Jay and Gal can get away with anything if they keep it where no-one cares.
Unfortunately, their employers are of a higher class and definitely care. On the surface, Jay & Gal’s contract is a trio of targets, but as the hits become more bizarre, it is clear that the two triggermen are pawns in a larger scheme.
The first hit is a priest – his misdemeanour is not specified, but the fact he is a Priest and thanks Jay before taking a bullet to the brain is enough to imply he’s been fishing for saplings.
The second hit, the librarian, infers guilt on the priest. The librarian a middle-aged nobody watching over a lock up, described on entering by Jay as a “wank den”. There’s also a tape in the VHS player, of something that sounds horrible and sickening, and by Jay’s reaction is very, very bad.
This takes Jay off on a vigilante tangent. In Get Carter, Michael Caine’s cold-blooded villain initially returned to Newcastle to avenge the death of his brother, who he didn’t like much anyway. It only got personal when he discovered his niece starred in some home made smut, and Carter went on the rampage.
Jay similarly turns a business-not-personal hitman’s agenda into a crusade, which strangely makes him a character to root for. This itself is uncomfortable, because as a viewer we begin to identify with his cause, while at the same time his methods of retribution become more and more brutal. Jay and Gal are bad men, and they only become protagonists because the men they are killing are much, much worse.
Kill List is nearly unhinged by a final act that seems almost wilfully nonsensical and bizarre, but has such an assured feel and unflinching eye that I believe it will become a borderline cult item that will, in time, be as revered as Get Carter and The Wicker Man. Hard-edged, clear-eyed and nasty, it never shies away from the humanity of its flawed and brutal characters, and marks Wheatley as a definite contender for the future of British cinema.