In its opening scenes ben Wheatley’s second feature, Kill List, seems to take place in the same sort of world as his first, the Brighton-set domestic gangster black comedy Down Terrace. Jay (Neil Maskell), a bullet-headed ex-soldier-turned-sometime-hitman, struggles to pay the bills — the Jacuzzi he needs for his perhaps-illusory ‘bad back’ wants an expensive fixing — and settle down with his tough, practical wife Shel (MyAnna Buring) — also, in a crucial detail, an ex-soldier who has done her time in Swedish national service — and raise their young son in suburbia. There’s mention of a job gone wrong in Kiev and too many conversations turn into arguments. As in Down Terrace, Wheatley shows he’s a master of disastrous dinner parties as verbal and physical violence always erupts when his characters settle down to a nice meal.
Gal (Michael Smiley), Jay’s seemingly less screwed-up partner in crime, cajoles him into that staple of the hitman/heist movie, ‘one last job’, which turns out to be less straightforward than advertised. Even in the early stretches, there are hints — a dinner guest surreptitiously draws a mystic symbol on the reverse of a bathroom mirror — that this isn’t going to be a straight-up heist movie. When Jay and Gal meet with a shadowy employer (Struan Rodger), the film sub-divides into chapters checking off items on their list (The Priest, The Librarian, The MP, The Hunchback) and the episodes get stranger. As things proceed, the film gets deeper into the bizarre, as if Get Carter were successively rewritten by Harold Pinter and Dennis Wheatley.
Mysteries abound. Why do victims take the trouble to thank Jay for their executions? Just how terrible is the porn (if that’s what it is?) archived in a lock-up by The Librarian (Mark Kempner) to prompt Jay into going off-mission with torture and some unpaid-for murders? Why won’t Jay’s doctor (Damien Thomas, a Hammer horror face from Twins Of Evil) pay attention to the obvious symptoms of some rotting disease that spreads from a cut inflicted on his hand by the client? What is Gal’s weird new girlfriend (Emma Fryer) playing at? And who is the hunchback who gets to be a last-minute addition to the list? It’s a sign of confidence that the climax, which has a wonderfully Gothic bravura, answers all these questions but leaves you to make many of your own connections. It’s not going too far to say Wheatley has a very British version of David Lynch’s knack for that disturbing twilight area which exists between the crime movie and the horror film.
Maskell, a very busy British actor who’s played a lot of hard blokes on either side of the law, is an unlikely leading man, but holds Kill List together, grounding even its surreal touches in something like everyday behaviour. Smiley, a character actor on his way from you-know-the-face to national treasure, is outstanding as Maskell’s chattier, apparently more grounded sidekick, bringing some Irish warmth into a chilly world, yet plainly as cracked as everyone else in sight. When Jay says that they should accept inevitable doom as comeuppance for all the terrible things they’ve done, Gal is genuinely puzzled and muses, “I haven’t done all that many terrible things,” even though they’re on a road trip which involves checking into anonymous hotels and murdering strangers.