This slow-building mystery starts out resembling a grim reality-based conspiracy thriller about a pair of brutal working-class hit men. But by the time the end credits roll, the most likely audience reaction may be “what the hell was that?”
What seems at first like a gloomy British kitchen-sink domestic drama involving former soldiers with anger management and money issues hits its stride as soon as the two get an assignment from a shadowy underworld superior. Something unspecified went seriously wrong with their last job, probably thanks to the violent hair-trigger temper of Jay (Neil Maskell). He’s the sort of horrible husband who ruins a dinner party by yanking away a tablecloth and getting into a shouting match with his equally volatile wife Shel (MyAnna Buring). He later drunkenly wrestles his more reasonable partner-in-crime Gal (Michael Smiley), who has arrived with a vaguely creepy date named Fiona (Emma Fryer).
Jay and Gal obviously need a place to channel their energy, and they get it in the form of a kill list of targets. Interestingly, Shel — a former soldier herself — is fully aware of husband Jay’s career. The two keep in touch via computer while Jay and Gal are on the road, unconvincingly posing as businessmen when they check into hotels near their intended victims.
Maskell is perfect as the tight-lipped, permanently angry and intermittently explosive Jay. While level-headed Gal tries to keep their jobs neat, quiet and efficient, Jay can’t keep his savage bloodlust in check, especially when he believes his victims deserve their fate. He’s also not above publicly intimidating a group of annoying Jesus freaks at a restaurant, even at the risk of attracting unwanted attention to himself.
Director/co-writer Ben Wheatley is good at conveying a sense of increasing paranoia and dread as Jay and Gal begin wondering if they’ve been set up. The stylish film is full of blackouts and unmatched cuts, with occasional screen-filling text identifying upcoming victims (“THE PRIEST,” “THE LIBRARIAN,” “THE M.P.”). Unfortunately, Wheatley and co-writer Amy Jump leave at least two nagging plot points unresolved. It’s never explained why Fiona carves a mysterious symbol into the back of a mirror at Jay’s home, or why one of Jay’s victims recognizes and worshipfully respects him.
The final third of the movie is so jarringly different from what went before it’s as if the entire project jumps genres from gritty mystery to surrealistic horror. Do Jay and Gal really chance upon a masked death cult at a member of parliament’s country estate in the middle of the night, or has psycho-killer Jay finally gone genuinely insane? As the hunters become the hunted, Kill List spirals into what’s either a more primally savage variation of Eyes Wide Shut or a frustratingly allegorical fever dream.
Whether that makes the bizarre ending aggravatingly unsatisfying or daringly great will be up to each viewer to decide — but it may just be both.
[Rating: 3.5 stars]
Kill List is released in theatres this Friday, February 3, 2012. It was released in the UK back on September 2, 2011.