Ben Wheatley revisited: Kill List (2011)

Kill List
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We’re digging into some of the work of filmmaker Ben Wheatley, and kicking things off with one of his most talked about films: Kill List.

Spoilers for Kill List lie ahead.

Though not the first movie from director Ben Wheatley, Kill List serves as a potent statement of intent for one of Britain’s newest creative forces.

After dabbling in television, following several short films and a spell in which he believed an aspiring directorial career was a lame duck, Wheatley and co-writer Robin Hill scrambled together the money to make 2009’s Down Terrace, his first feature; a stripped back crime tale with no stars (though boasting solid veterans such as Julia Deakin, Michael Smiley and David Schaal), largely set in a run down London terrace, with an ugly, grim, mordantly funny template. It works but it doesn’t scream the presence of a major new talent.

Kill List, in contrast, absolutely does.

I first caught Wheatley’s second feature as part of an all-night modern horror marathon at the Prince Charles Cinema in London (their all-nighters are highly recommended if you ever get the chance). Kill List was first on the bill and remained, even with four subsequent films, my favourite of the experience. There was and remains something stark and brutal about Wheatley’s film, in how it fuses together a traditional modern British crime thriller with the fringes of a disturbing folk horror tale. It always, quite intentionally, keeps those elements largely at bay, which only makes them more terrifying.

It also serves as a halfway house for Wheatley between the DIY filmmaking of Down Terrace and his subsequent greater profile allowing him to attract bigger and more notable actors. He discusses the approach concerning Down Terrace:

With no budget, the main asset you have is performances. They have to be great. Good actors can captivate on an empty stage. Bad ones in front of an amazing set are still bad. Our script was written for actors I knew. This can be high-risk (when you ask them to do it they may say no) but it does mean you don’t have any nasty surprises when it comes to filming.

Though he had more to play with on Kill List, Wheatley still opts to retain actors he knows can deliver and feels comfortable with – particularly Smiley, who gets the second biggest role here as an assassin named Gal (building on his skeevy but shorter turn as Pringle in Down Terrace, which retains some similarities). Wheatley continues this trend across his projects over the next decade, weaving a core recurring ensemble in through numerous pictures. Here, he introduces Neil Maskell to that fold as Jay, a former soldier turned underworld hitman haunted by a career he opted to leave behind in order to focus on his family.

Kill List

Maskell immediately strikes a chord. Wheatley opens the film with he and wife Shel (the excellent Myanna Buring) amidst a screaming match and that tension around Jay, his marriage and his broader existence never quite goes away. He carries sizeable anger with him, not just at the world but also the notion of a higher power. Wheatley’s script with partner Amy Jump (his consistent collaborator from here on in, with Robin Hill moving into a co-editor role for this and Sightseers) frames Jay as a man hiding from himself, from the violence he is capable of within, and frustrated at the hand he was dealt.

Though Wheatley’s film isn’t expressly political, it exists in the shadow of the economic crash and the Iraq War, both failures that have tested Western democracy in subsequent years, as he discussed:

So we’re in the middle of this Vietnam experience, and no one’s really saying anything. And then there’s the recession. So I wanted to make a film about a family that was living with that. They’re a kind of ‘stock’ family, but they’re under a lot of contemporary pressure because they’re in a lot of debt. And once you’re in that world of debt, there’s no way to turn the boat around, is there? You can’t do it fast enough. You’re locked in. And that’s the same for everyone.

A tense dinner between Jay, Shel, Gal and his new girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer) has Jay display his grievance, as underlying religious tensions come into play. Fiona suggests the Troubles were pointless as “it’s all the same religion”, which the Northern Irish Gal (suggested to be a survivor of the Troubles as a soldier) contests. Given we quickly learn Fiona is part of whatever strange, occult cabal Jay ultimately collides with, her goading of Christianity is all the more interesting. Clues exist beyond her drawing the symbol on Jay & Shel’s bathroom mirror. Gal describes her as a “demon” in bed, for instance, tapping specifically religious imagery.

Jay’s godlessness also emerges during a moment he & Gal interrupt a group of boisterous Christians in a restaurant for singing ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’. “God loves you” he is patronisingly told, and he replies: “Does he? Well, tell God from me if you’re the kind of people he hangs about with, stay out of my way.” Jay rejects traditional Christianity across the film. He pushes away the family unit around him, even with Shel aware of the dark world that funds their life and could erase their debt. He witnesses extreme snuff in a horrifying moment built on Maskell’s disturbed response and exacts vengeance upon the men who filmed and distributed it. “They are bad people. They should suffer.” He rejects faith but he does seek to impart moral judgement on the deviants he is sent out to kill.

Kill List

Wheatley wanted with Kill List to build on the ideas inherent in Down Terrace and make something that more explicitly leaned toward genre:

There’d been a treatment kicking about called “Get Djakarta”, which we were going to shoot in the Philippines. It was borrowing the plot of “Get Carter” and turning it into an HP Lovecraft idea with cults and everything. That was the germ of it. But the actual script was written afterwards. “Down Terrace” was a crime film seen through the filter of movie realism, improv and documentary, and we wanted to take those ideas, take everything we’d learned, and make a horror film.

The horror in Kill List is underplayed while always being in the minds’ eye. Though it isn’t until the climax when Wheatley completely throws the shackles off, fusing together the occult imagery of The Wicker Man with elements of the monster/zombie picture, the sense that Jay’s world hovers on the edge of something unnatural is inherent throughout what is otherwise a fairly prosaic if nihilistic crime story, riven with that undercurrent of a decaying social contract. It could have simply been Jay descending into a pit of despair as shadowy paymasters (seemingly as high up as government) assign him to kill very human monsters (snuff merchants, paedophile priests etc…) but Wheatley is unafraid to tip the film on the axis of folk horror.

He discusses this in relation to the symbol that opens the film and is key to the lurking, unexplained cult horror within:

The funny thing is, when I first drew the logo out, I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s brilliant!’ And then I thought, ‘God, it really looks like something …’ And when we finished the movie I realised: it’s like the Blair Witch logo! So I thought we were were going to get slaughtered by people saying, ‘Oh they’ve just ripped off Blair Witch.’ Now everyone’s saying it’s like the Deathly Hallows logo, which is a triangle with a circle and a line down the middle. But I’ve no idea about that! I’m too old to be reading about wizards, y’know?

Intriguingly, Wheatley thinks of his fourth film, A Field in England, as not just the culmination of an unofficial and unexpected ‘mystic Albion’ trilogy, with Kill List and Sightseers (although arguably In the Earth makes it a quadrilogy), but that the events of his 17th century set picture serve as an unofficial precursor to the occult elements in Kill List. I’ll get into that when discussing A Field in England soon but it suggests, albeit a touch retrospectively, that Wheatley thinks bigger and more broadly about how his pictures find ways to interconnect.

If the horror aspects are fresh in Kill List, the film shares similar DNA with Down Terrace, and indeed Sightseers, in depicting a male protagonist with entitled expectations, frustrated at his role as a man in a conventional existence, while exerting a level of psychological control over the woman by his side.

Robin Hill’s Karl in Down Terrace is suffocated by his domineering old lag father and quietly influential, seemingly downtrodden mother when he just wants to escape the world that has boxed him in. Chris in Sightseers shows murderous indignation at those he feels breaks the social contract wilfully without thought (Jay and the Christians also leans toward this). And Jay here is heavily intimated to be physically and psychologically impotent, likely in part due to long-term PTSD. It all ripples beneath the picture as part of the psychological trauma that informs the mystery Jay seems specifically connected to, something life seems to have been drawing him toward.

Wheatley’s ending is bleak. To me it recalled Frank Darabont’s The Mist in giving the audience absolutely no quarter, or even the savage, tragic revelation of Oldboy. He places Jay in the single most horrific outcome and leaves you with no answers, a mountain of questions, and a creeping sense that everything was pre-determined. Along the way, he draws us into a dark world, shot as realistically as he can make it, which allows us to imagine everything in Kill List could truly exist. If that isn’t the purest of effective horror, I’m not sure what is.

The key point: Kill List has stayed with me since the very first time I watched it. Images, scenes and moments linger. As strong as much of Ben Wheatley’s filmography to come is, I can’t say that about all of those films. Even despite high points to come, Kill List remains a zenith.

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