Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The unclassifiable Kill List is an unsettling odyssey to the dark side

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Screenshot: Kill List

Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases or premieres, or occasionally our own inscrutable whims. With the Sundance sensation Hereditary opening in theaters this week, we’re taking a look at other movies that make our skin crawl.


Kill List (2011)

The English director Ben Wheatley’s extremely low-budget breakthrough, Kill List, is one of those movies that is best seen with a bare minimum of advance knowledge; one should be as clueless as the protagonist, Jay (Neil Maskell), a cash-strapped contract killer who spends most of the film in the figurative dark. So take this week’s Watch This theme (inspired by the upcoming Hereditary, with which Kill List actually shares some vague plot points) as a warning. It’s a disturbing piece of work. From a technical standpoint, its style is a world away from the busy camera moves and extravagant disco-era claustrophobia of Wheatley’s more recent films, the J.G. Ballard adaptation High-Rise and the action slapstick Free Fire. But it shares with those black comedies a theme of slippage and regression. Drawing inspiration from a particular British horror classic (and, more generally, from Britain’s pagan past), Wheatley and his wife and regular screenwriter, Amy Jump, have created a nasty little odyssey into the cultural unconscious—or their version of it, anyway.

The lack of polish actually adds an element of disquieting surprise. Most of Kill List’s opening 20 minutes are set around the suburban house where Jay lives with his younger Swedish wife, Shel (MyAnna Buring), and their son—a reality check on life after the “one last job.” The bank account is empty; the Jacuzzi is broken. Though he’s reluctant to go back to work (he blames a back problem, possibly imagined), Jay eventually accepts an offer from his old buddy Gal (Michael Smiley)—and that’s probably the most a prospective viewer should know, provided they have the stomach for its unnerving violence. (It creeps out Gal and Jay, and they’re hit men.) The structure of Kill List is that of deepening nightmare and crushing existential irony, and its housebound kitchen-sink-drama first act is more than just exposition. Sneakily, it suggests a trip back through the history of anxieties, from overdue bills to pure survival.

Its underlying metaphor is probably best understood backwards, as one of the primitive superstition and violence sublimated into more socially acceptable forms until it arrives at the exact point where the movie begins. It’s not uncommon for stories of the creepy and fantastic to depict a world controlled by dark forces. But Kill List has more on its agenda than putting knots in the audience’s stomach. Grotesquely, it imagines ancient fears lurking behind the rituals of modern life—a circle of masked figures in the darkness of the primeval wood. The weirdest thing about its mutating narrative is that it just might be about capitalism.

Availability: Kill List is available to rent or buy through the major digital services. It can also be obtained on DVD or Blu-ray from Netflix, Amazon, or possibly your local video store/library.