Kill List, Ben Wheatley, 96 mins (18)

A genre-mashing British horror film set in suburbia is full of brutality and menace, but beneath its violence lies a far more shocking truth about everyday life

Up and coming British director Ben Wheatley is developing a very idiosyncratic, distinctly troubling voice.

To some degree, his films resemble known quantities – strange but true, you could plausibly compare his Kill List to films by both Mike Leigh and David Lynch. Even so, don't be surprised if you soon hear people using the epithet "Wheatleyesque".

Wheatley's debut Down Terrace was an inspired miniature – a story about a crime family, shot almost entirely in one cramped house. It was a film that didn't just treat crime as black comedy, but conjured up its own troubling picture of human nature. Kill List consolidates its low-budget approach, but stakes out new territory besides – in a way that doesn't entirely pay off, but is audacious. Be warned, though, this is strong meat.

Kill List is a sort of crime thriller that mutates into nightmare story. But before that, Wheatley and writing partner/co-editor Amy Jump convince us that we're in familiar kitchen-sink land. The film begins with a row between a suburban married couple, Jay (Neil Maskell) and Shel (MyAnna Buring), about the finances that he has squandered on a jacuzzi. We're in the grip of bitter domestic psychodrama, as the couple taunt each other in oppressive close-up, with their young son looking on. The evening continues with the arrival of Jay's old friend Gal (Michael Smiley) and his new girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer). Dinner doesn't go well – it's steeped in Pinterish unease, all gaffes and muttered recriminations.

The film soon shifts into apparent genre mode, as we realise what ex-soldiers Jay and Gal now do for a living. They're hit men, with a new list of targets to dispatch. But things look ominous from the moment they meet their client – Struan Rodger, resembling a suavely degenerate uncle to Bill Nighy. Then, when the killers set off on their rounds, we're in a world of modern English mundanity. Jay and Gal stay in a series of bland, beige motorway hotels; take an interest in the soaps and shampoos on offer; and bunk down with Andy McNab-style paperbacks on their bedside tables.

Things really turn strange once the killings begin. The first target is a priest, staked out in a brilliantly concise, telegraphic sequence. The second is a dealer in a brand of porno-graphy that reduces even the hardened Jay to horrified tears – causing him to (be warned) respond accordingly.

While matters turn ever more brutal, the enigmas pile up. Someone is keeping a close eye on the two killers, but why? What happened to Jay in Kiev? And what is the symbol that Fiona has carved on the back of the couple's bedroom mirror? Logical explanations, though, are less interesting than the overall mood of menace that Wheatley instils in this ordinary world of suburban discontent – not least, through Jim Williams's abrasively oppressive score. Quite apart from intimations of occult doings, there's a more enigmatic tone of otherness at work: the film reminded me of Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black, a novel in which the supernatural is located in the landscape of industrial hinterlands and Little Chefs.

Underlying Kill List is the sobering idea that there might be some things even more horrific than the threat of men with guns – that the truly unthinkable might be normality itself, with its attendant moral vacancy. But when Kill List finally unveils its more strident nightmare imagery, it too obviously echoes a certain much-loved British horror film. It's easy to feel reassured by the terror taking such recognisably freakish form – and as a result, the story's ghastly pay-off feels awkwardly muffed.

But the social satire is consistently incisive. And the performances are terrific, with the cast making their own contributions to the inconsequential chatter with which these characters deceive themselves they're living acceptable existences. Buring's Shel is icily resentful beneath the femininity she wears like armour, and Michael Smiley plays it cheerfully careworn, as if there were no contradiction between Gal's gruff affability and his easy acceptance of a death as a trade. Meanwhile Neil Maskell's character exudes a bloated unease, like a man slowly rupturing from within. Jay is an arresting, terrifying creation, an essentially clueless man of the pettiest ambitions. When he vents his fury on the pornographer, it's an utterly horrifying sequence – not only because of the graphic violence, but because Maskell gives an authentic impression of a soul in torment.

You'll emerge from Kill List either asking, "What the hell was that?"; or dazzled by its intensity; or needing a stiff drink. Or any combination of the above. One way or another, expect Kill List to trouble you – in the way only the everyday can, when certain films contrive to rip its surface away.

Next Week:

Jonathan Romney reports from the Venice Film Festival and reviews Post Mortem, a chiller from Chile

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn