Rather surprisingly given its small budget and lack of household, or in some cases even recognizable names, Ben Wheatley’s Kill List made quite a critical splash when it was released two years ago. The follow up to his rather porous debut Down Terrace, the story of two hitmen, three targets and an escalation from moody and sinister intent into downright crazy horror proved to be one of British cinema’s most devise releases for years. To say it was a film the critics loved while the public hated would be a crass oversimplification. It would be far more accurate to say it divided both bases quite dramatically, with virtually no middle ground. Its abrupt, mind boggling ending in particular, while providing a traumatic final twist, drew as much disdain for its break from basic storytelling narrative then it did twisted affection for its visceral impact. What the detractors perhaps didn’t quite figure, or more likely had no interest in interpreting, was that it made perfect sense within a movie that is entirely, exclusively non-literal. With Wheatley’s latest film, the equally unreal A Field in England, now out in cinemas, it makes sense to go back and really decode what Kill List was doing beyond confusion and shock therapy.
The story is rather basic, traditional action thriller set up, to the point of being something of a cliché; it’s the old ‘last job’ plot, the variation by which you just know from the start that the protagonist is not going to walk back into the sunset by film’s end. What you probably didn’t expect is that after the finale, he doesn’t have a sunset to head for. That air of dread and dark foreboding is prevalent from the very first frame as Neil Maskell’s Jay, a successful hitman suffering early retirement after a botched operation in Kiev left him with chronic back pain, finds his idiosyncratically luxurious lifestyle has wiped out his considerable savings. Unlike most anti-heroes in this mould, he has a wife (played by Swedish blonde bombshell MyAnna Buring) who is fully aware of his morally squeamish profession, and a young son. So best friend and partner in crime Gal, comedian Michael Smiley in full charm mode, pops up with the prospect of a new and lucrative operation; three marks, a week’s work and a large paycheck that will clear Jay’s debts and allow him to repair his crucial hot tub.
Everything, even the more formulaic stuff, is dripping with darkness and teetering on the brink of madness. Unsurprisingly, one of the most celebrated components of Kill List is its piano wire taut atmosphere and mood, a testament to Wheatley’s vision. It earns its horror tag mainly due to the tone, while the mystery thriller aspect, bordering at times on noir, is a product of its narrative. Helping the story is the unhinged mental state of its main character, with Jay’s personality in keeping with a PTSD victim and his behavior more often than not betraying a constant infusion of furious energy and loosely directed rage. After feeling a slight from a passive aggressive comment at a dinner party at his house, he reacts by upturning the table’s contents and entering a horribly realistic shouting match with his disgusted wife. Irritation at overhearing a Christian Good Samaritan group at a nearby table in a restaurant he and Gal frequent manifests with a psychotic, though highly amusing, confrontation. When the job actually begins it’s not long before Jay goes off-script and begins making work harder for himself and his concerned friend.
The sense here is that the protagonist is on the cusp of something awful, something self-inflicted and completely self-destructive. The enigmatic Kiev job, a disastrous foreign venture which has seemingly done untold damage, is never explored in fact or detail, and remains a small mystery in the background. In a lot of ways, it represents Jay’s entire past, his back story. The trauma, the failure and the anger at things going awry fueling his present day angst; from a plotting perspective, it is character building and explains away his retirement and personal problems, but from a thematic point of view it represents his darkness. His fall down the slippery slope started long before the film began. The fact that he has been able to maintain a family, and aside from domestic problems actually manage to do a good job with his child, is frankly a miracle. When the action proper begins, just how flawed Jay is becomes horribly apparent and, more importantly, the clearer it becomes that everything is not the way it should be.
It starts off with a rather disturbing meeting when their employer, a venerable businessman who shares blood from cut hands with Jay as some kind of tryst. What the viewer should really notice from this exchange, beyond the surprise, is that only Jay is subjected to a slit palm. Gal, present and horrified by the gesture, is not asked to participate. Right away, we get the message that Jay is the important one and that this job is in effect all about him. Symbolically, the blood shedding represents a number of things aside from acting as a Chekhov’s Gun. It plants a seed within him, inside his blood, and also acts as character establishment for the contractor, emphasizing that he is ritualistic, mentally unsound and far more than just a moneybags with a thoughts of vengeance. Remember that this client (played in suitably creepy fashion by Struan Rodger) is the brains and soul behind their mission, its human representative, and he is introduced as a terrifyingly mystical character. The list of the title further emphasizes the danger present; first up is a priest.
Compared to the rest of the film’s subtext, this is rather on the nose, but the manner in which it is handled and presented is far from so. Most notably, and crucially to the film’s message, is that when Jay emerges from a cupboard with gun drawn to the clergyman’s head, the victim smiles and thanks him. Pulling the trigger, rather than simply being a formality, is done out of bafflement and discomfort. This will become a running theme. The second victim, a ‘librarian’, is equally enigmatic and his oddness convinces Jay to do some further prying to understand why he’s on the list. A collection of snuff films that the man in question is holding gives him all the motivation he needs to not only kill the freak, but to make him suffer. This is when he breaks from set protocol and in the process really drives home an interpretation of a proverbial phrase that is at the film’s dark heart.
‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions’. This is a slight variation on an 1150 AD quote from Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, and is traditionally read as meaning that actions, not convictions, are what grant one access to heaven. Given that it’s a philosophical musing, there is always room for other interpretations, and a different way of reading this is that an act undertaken with good intentions in mind can quite easily become an act of evil. While more sinister, this is perhaps a more pragmatic meaning to take from the proverb and its one that Kill List is laced with. Jay only agrees to the job when it becomes clear that he is financially hamstrung. He has a young family to support, after all, so the very basic choice to take on the contract is of in itself a good intention, at least in Jay’s mind. When he later learns that the librarian is part of a group who are kidnapping, torturing and murdering random people for the purposes of home entertainment, he decides to take on more work and track down the other perpetrators and enact grisly retribution for the very same reasons. From his point of view, he is justified.
This leads to the uncomfortably up-front and honest violence of the film. It explodes in places with meticulous care that while gratuitous can simply not be seen as campy, over the top or in any ways shlocky in the same way that some violent horror films can and are. Sometimes showing too much can ruin the tension, something the Saw and Hostel films clearly suffered from. In Kill List, the sight of Jay taking a hammer to the Librarian is disturbing, not exploitative, disgusting and not mere ‘torture porn’. While helping the film retain something of a gritty edge despite the swirling vortex of existentialism, the key reason for this bluntness is that we HAVE to see what Jay is truly capable of in the flesh. These acts taking place off-screen, or being reflected by reaction shots, would dilute the impact and lose their meaning. Regardless of whether the Librarian is evil and needs to be killed, the sheer animalistic rage and glee taken in his torture and slow death is utterly unconscionable. Being a moral arbiter relies on not resorting to the methods of those you condemn. Were Jay simply a troubled avenger, he would have killed the Librarian quickly, simply removing him from the equation. He enjoys making him suffer. Also, on the subject, the Librarian waits until Gal is out of the room before exposing his admiration for Jay, and, yes, thanks him for his own death. It’s perhaps this that decides Jay’s next act for him; he tracks down the rest of the snuff film makers and murders them in equally objectionable manner.
An attempt to break off the deal and tear up the contract in light of the job becoming too dark and twisted proves futile as personal threats are subsequently made to Jay’s family. The truth is quitting is Gal’s idea and one that only Jay’s brain agrees with; deep down, he wants to continue and get to the bottom of their job the hard way. He is easily swayed to return to the fold, and has to fight with Gal (literally and symbolically) to ensure his cooperation. The final mark is a politician in a huge manor house, and this segment is what opens up the previously subtle subplot involving a mysterious Wicker Man-esque cult. After opening fire on the Pagan-like followers as they ritualistically sacrifice a young woman, Jay sparks off a hasty escape through a sewage outlet tunnel that results in Gal’s death. As he’s mortally wounded, Jay assents to Gal’s wish for a quick death. It’s almost lost in the trauma at the film killing off its most likeable character, but once again Jay is thanked for the killing, albeit in a different context. He simply wanted to spare his friend agony, so ended things quickly. A good intention…
As an endgame, Jay holes his family up in a remote cottage for their own protection, and a Straw Dogs style siege begins. The last stand fails, and Jay is captured and thrust into the ring for a knife wielding dual with ‘the hunchback’. Inevitably, after fatally slaying the masked and cloak wearing monster, he discovers that his enemy was actually his wife and child, the latter riding piggy back. Then the film ends, on that horrible and cruel note. Hence uproar from certain quarters, since the conclusion provided no closure to a story that didn’t want to end with finality or be explained. This, they said, was an attempt to exploit the audience’s emotional state rather than respect them with a logical ending. One has to wonder why, after everything that came before, anybody would expect the finale to make sense on a literal level. The ending is not a mere sucker punch, it is the natural conclusion to Jay’s arc. A ruthless and immoral killer by trade, perhaps the most unethical of occupations despite any attempt to rationalize, the film’s events have tracked his slow descent from veneer of balance into his own hell, or evil. In the last twenty minutes, he has done everything required to live freely as an agent of bad.
What kept him sane and clean from the blood sacrifices? His wife, his child and his best friend. By his own actions, enacted by his desires and needs to quench his defining rage with violence, he has seen about killing all three of them personally, burning all his bridges. He always found a way to make sense of his job, the anonymous killing of strangers for money, as a necessity. There was a wife and child to feed, and keep housed, after all. Everybody has to earn their keep. But this always papered over the cracks of doubt, the fact that he had built up a lie to hold together a house of cards. He wanted to kill, he loved doing it and needed to it. Without the death and carnage, he suffered from fits of rage, listlessness and chronic pains more psychological than physical (anybody who has watched House can attest to this genuine science being a useful storytelling tool). Already on the road to hell long before the list was given, or the Kiev job was botched, the film’s epynomous list gave him the opportunity to shorn himself of his restraints, assuaging his weak conscience along the way, and the ending really does ends his journey; no more responsibilities, anchors or moral centers, he is free.
Kill List, you see, is not a literal story about hitmen on a mission, it is a symbolic allegory about the descent into evil. By way of a crazy cult and some narratively contrived events, he is free. His descent is complete.
This has been a Strange Interpretation…