There are three people on the “Kill List:” a priest, a librarian and a politician. These are the public figures that ex-British soldiers Jay (Neil Maskell) and Gal (Michael Smiley) are given nondescript instructions to assassinate. Their employer is a mystery man who knows something about Jay’s past, a shadowy mission gone wrong in Kiev. Writer/director Ben Wheatley and his co-writer Amy Jump carefully conceal all of this information in a film that baits us, and then throws us out to sea as if we were another one of its corpses.
An indie hailing from Britain like an angry bird from hell, “Kill List” opens with a disturbing dinner party. Jay and his wife Shel (MyAnna Burring) invite Gal and his jaunty date Fiona (Emma Fryer) into their working-class country home. Jay and Shel scrap over money, and this is when the film starts signaling its sinister intentions. Fiona steals to the bathroom, pilfers a discarded tissue with Jay’s blood on it and carves an occultish symbol into the back of a mirror.
As a means to escape domestic distress and to make some quick blood money, Jay takes the job. In an old hotel, they meet their ghostly employer who slices Jay’s hand and his own in a kind of ritual indoctrination. As events progress, Jay’s wound grows more and more infected, and so does the film.
Jay and Gal first kill the priest. Before Jay plants a bullet in the holy man’s head, the victim thanks him. Next is the librarian, who the hitmen discover is also a child pornographer, triggering Jay’s unprofessional hysteria. Like the priest, the librarian thanks him, just before referencing Jay’s history in Kiev. Wheatley is a master of this kind of portent. In one of many crackles of stripped-down, uncomfortably convincing carnage, Jay bludgeons a victim’s skull with a hammer.
From here, Jay’s psychosis, aided by drugs and booze and boxed-up emotions, takes hold of him and his wife and young son. They find the carrion of a rabbit — which Jay lovingly cooks and eats — splayed on their lawn, and a black cat’s corpse strung up on their porch. As threats loom close to home, Jay flails and flounders, determined to know why the details of the “kill list” have been so ominously withheld.
At the visual and aural level, Wheatley’s film is an almost Lynchian assault upon the senses. Scenes unfold with nerve-plucking music and shock cuts to doom-laden skylines and landscapes. This is pure cinema at its creepiest. Even that bourgeois dinner party, in which Jay and Shel desperately try to maintain normalcy, gushes unshakable dread. Wheatley shoots in industrial spaces, crematoriums, junkyards and sewers, suffusing the environment with evil.
“Kill List” near-achieves a new aesthetics of horror, reconfiguring the genre’s casual tropes for inventive iterations of terror. But black comedy gags, like the cooked rabbit, and nods to crime movies — have you ever seen or heard silencers in a horror movie? — evoke something outside of horror at play in Wheatley’s vision which also, unexpectedly, smacks of kitchen-sink realism.
It’s a protean beast of a film, morphing from contract-killer caper into cult horror freak-out. In the final third, we find ourselves alongside Jay and Gal, lost in the woods. Even nature has turned on them. The film lurches into unspeakable darkness, forsaking even the umbra of hope. But it’s hardly abrupt. Wheatley primes us for his last hurrah all along, leaving subtle bread crumbs of foreshadowing in every frame. It’s a doozy of an ending so sick and nihilistic that all we can do is laugh because if we didn’t, we’d go bonkers. No generic label can contain the madness of “Kill List.”
Ryan Lattanzio is the lead film critic.