FRIGHTFEST 2011: KILL LIST Review

James Marsh, Asian Editor
British director Ben Wheatley follows up the incredible critical success of his 2009 debut DOWN TERRACE with another peek behind the net curtains of suburban British crime in his "difficult second feature", KILL LIST. As with his previous film, things start off small. Jay (Neil Maskell) and Shel (MyAnna Burling) are a typical lower middle class family living in the South East of England, who bicker their way through an otherwise relatively settled domestic existence. A former British serviceman, Jay now works as a private contractor with his ex-army buddy Gal (Michael Smiley), but has been laid up for 8 months with a bad back following a botched job in Kiev, an injury that Shel suggests is largely psychosomatic. Jay's reluctance to work has put a financial strain on the relationship, not least because they have a 10-year-old son to provide for, so when Gal and his new squeeze Fiona (Emma Fryer) come round for dinner, Gal is quick to offer Jay and he take a new assignment.

To know any more about the plot of KILL LIST would be to spoil the many twists and turns that lie in store for its audiences. What begins as naturalistic conversations in the back garden and across the dinner table slowly evolves into one of the most tense and chilling thrillers to come out of the UK in quite some time. Even before Jay and Gal set off on their mission, which will take them into the bleak North East, an unsettling sense of unease is already hanging in the air, which will only continue to grow more and more suffocating as the film progresses and the boys get deeper over their heads. Wheatley has already proved himself adept at disarming his audiences, inviting them into situations which at first appear welcoming and innocent enough, only for flashes of violence to appear from under a cushion or lurking behind a cup of tea. It's Mike Leigh by way of The Krays, with a soap opera aesthetic that betrays a grand guignol penchant for carnage. 

Because of this loose and naturalistic approach to the material, the effectiveness of KILL LIST rests heavily on the shoulders of the actors, who are awarded a co-writing credit to acknowledge their improvisational contributions. While Neil Maskell has been a stalwart of British television for many years as well as a reliable character actor in cockney geezer flicks like THE FOOTBALL FACTORY and DOGHOUSE, as Jay he rises above the trappings of any previous typecasting with a truly terrifying performance. Jay is a killing machine idling for something to seek and destroy. He is wound so tight that even the most trivial domestic situation can become a life threatening altercation in the blink of an eye. There is something genuinely frightening about putting trained killers into every day situations and every furrowed brow and clenched fist that ripples across the surface of Jay's inner tempest send shivers down our spines. He harbours secrets he is unwilling and perhaps unable to face up to, not because of what he might reveal about a past job, but what it might reveal about himself. Jay is a ticking time bomb that can't wait to explode.

While KILL LIST is very much Maskell's show and he owns the screen for every second that he's on it, there is fine support from the other principles, most notably Myanna Burling as his beautiful, yet long-suffering wife. Swedish by birth, MyAnna brings this seemingly incidental trait to her character of Shel. Nothing feeds Jay's paranoia more than hearing Shel talking to her mother on the telephone in her native tongue. The scene is not subtitled and Jay clearly hasn't picked up the language, but it is plain as day that Shel is talking about him and voicing dissatisfaction in ways she could never say to his face. This barrier between him and his wife, this shield that Shel can use to protect herself against her husband needles at him and fuels his distrust. Burling was awarded the Best Actress award at PIFAN last month for her performance here and she proves to be every bit as powerful as Maskell, by taking an almost opposite approach. That is not to say she is meek or submissive, but rather that she shows no fear in the face of the quiet, yet dangerous man to whom she is married.

Fans of Edgar Wright's beloved TV sitcom SPACED will recognize Michael Smiley as speed freak bicycle courier Tyres, as well as Pringle in DOWN TERRACE. In KILL LIST Smiley has perhaps the most dangerous job of them all, that of Jay's best friend, Gal. An old army buddy, Gal is the only person Jay trusts and to whom he speaks openly and honestly about how he feels. Gal is often the source of comic relief, both in their relationship and in the film, making him the perfect counter balance to Jay's brooding intensity. The guys frequently argue and tussle rougher than most other friends would, but at the end of the day they know they would stop a bullet for each other. Needless to say, the job on which the pair embarks serves to test that theory to its breaking point, and does so in unexpected and praiseworthy ways that never contradict the logic of their very complex friendship.

It is difficult to discuss KILL LIST without going into the details of the plot, suffice to say that it builds slowly towards a feverish finale that could never have been forseen from the events of Act One. The film contains numerous instances of brutal and unflinching violence, which will have toughened gorehounds wincing through their fingers, but it is the stifling atmosphere that slowly closes in on you that will leave the longest impression. The third act is some way removed from where these characters began their journey and a more pedantic reviewer might criticize this change in tone as something of a betrayal from the honesty and intimacy of the film's opening. However, seen as a whole, KILL LIST more than earns its pay-off, which should leave audiences stunned, breathless and in dire need of a stiff drink.
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