Film of the week

Kill List (18)


Starring: Neil Maskell, MyAnna Buring, Michael Smiley, Emma Fryer

Strong meat, this. Even those who cackled and cringed through Ben Wheatley's Brighton-based crime satire Down Terrace (also the best British picture of 2010), may find themselves recoiling at certain moments in his second film, Kill List. It's hard to say at present exactly what genre Wheatley is staking out, because his films never settle in one place. Mike Leigh was invoked by admirers of Down Terrace, though one could also detect notes of Ealing comedy at its darkest. The new one seems to establish the same mood of suburban malaise – "scatter cushions" get an early mention – before venturing into a more sinister realm which David Lynch, Harold Pinter and Wheatley's own namesake Dennis have stalked.

This time, the domestic unease centres on a couple with a young son. Jay (Neil Maskell) is a brawny ex-soldier who's still recovering from an unspecified trauma in Kiev eight months ago. His wife, Shel (MyAnna Buring), is not one to shirk a marital row, especially on the subject of their cashflow.

A dinner to which Jay's army mate Gal (Michael Smiley) has brought a new girlfriend, Fiona (Emma Fryer), simmers and then boils over into a screaming match between the hosts. Later, sensing his moment, Gal urges Jay to accept a lucrative job – their line of business, post-army, being contract murder. So, at an anonymous hotel they meet a close-mouthed client (Struan Rodger) who hands them the "kill list" of three targets. It seems straightforward, but turns out anything but.

A mystery story lies in wait, though Wheatley and his co-writer Amy Jump are as interested in the manner as the matter of their two killers. The script, as with Down Terrace, melds a precise vernacular with deadpan (and often chucklesome) improvisation by the actors. Maskell's Jay is a hair-trigger merchant with something dead behind the eyes; Smiley's Gal has a quicker intelligence and an Ulster charm not yet extinguished by his professional ruthlessness. There's a very funny scene early on when the pair are trying to have a quiet dinner in a hotel restaurant despite the staff having placed them adjacent to the only other occupied table (why do restaurants do that?). Jay is already seething when one of the company brings out a guitar and they launch into a jolly rendering of "Onward, Christian Soldiers". He walks over, snatches the instrument away and delivers some warning words, to which the guitarist quaveringly replies, "God's love can be hard to swallow." "Not as hard as a dinner plate," says Jay.

Mostly, the pair's talk comes in a knowing, side-of-the-mouth fashion that eludes almost everyone else. When Gal flirts with a hotel receptionist, she looks up distracted from fiddling with the PIN machine. "Sorry?" she says. "You won't be, love, honestly," Gal leers back.

Their first hit turns out to be a priest, prefaced by a plain title card across the screen: THE PRIEST. It's when they do their next, a "librarian", that things start to go awry. Having discovered in the target's lock-up an atrocity exhibition of porn shocking even to them, Jay decides to go "off-list" and take out the whole ring. But as the brutality escalates, so does the bafflement. What is the occult symbol carved on the reverse of a bathroom mirror? What "oath" did the client mean when he cut Jay's hand on sealing their arrangement? Why do the murder victims all smile and seem to "thank" the killers?

These small details planted seemingly at random will bear bitter fruit later. For the present, all is enigmatic. "It doesn't feel wrong," muses Jay of their kill-list, "...they're bad people", though he and Gal become so spooked by the job that they try to bale prematurely. No dice. The client insists on its completion, which leads our hapless hitmen deep into the woods and an encounter straight out of a Gothic nightmare.

Wheatley has said in interview that he likes movies that surprise and confound him. He insists that the multiple strands of mystery in Kill List do make sense, even if they aren't immediately decipherable. "The information is there... lurking in the corners of frames. I think it's far more scary to be half told, than definitively told." Agreed, though I'm still at a loss to unpack this one satisfactorily. One of its most unfathomable wrinkles is the reference to Kiev, where it all fell apart for Jay – but what happened there? The sudden flips into the surreal might argue that Jay has hallucinated the whole experience from his remembered stress back then in "Kiev".

This is a more ambitious and complex film than Down Terrace, which stayed determinedly humdrum even during its violent denouement. (I can never think of Willow pattern dinner plates in the same way again.) You sense a film-maker trying to raise the stakes, to draw out psychological and even political implications from a seemingly narrow story of professional murder.

The last hit on the list is an MP, yet in a gruesome twist there proves to be another – "the hunchback" – whose identity supplies the film with its hideous reveal. Hideous, though not as shocking as it might have been: last year's A Serbian Film got there first. It should secure the film cult status nonetheless, just as Edward Woodward's fate in The Wicker Man or Donald Sutherland's in Don't Look Now did for a previous generation. You will be asking yourself questions about Kill List once it's over, pondering its layers of meaning and its trail of clues. Of how many other recent British films could one say the same?

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas