Film of the week

Kill List (18)

4.00

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
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'