Sunday, October 12, 2014

Kill List (2011)

Jay is young father who has been off work for a while and is reluctant to get back. Under pressure from his wife Shel and his best friend Gal, he takes on a new assignment that will pay well and won't take him away from his family for long. As Jay and Gal get into the work, unexpected complications arise that cause them to question what they have gotten themselves into. Unable to withdraw from the job, the two men start to realise that they're at the centre of something very sinister, and they that have no idea of the rules or even of which game they are playing.

Kill List has an interesting structure in that it successfully switches genre for each third of the movie. If you went in knowing absolutely nothing about it, for a while you'd probably assume it was going to be a kitchen sink drama, until it transitions smoothly into a crime thriller. The abrupt leap into the last third demands the most from the viewer, though the movie plays fair and hints where it is going very early on.

It's also very light on exposition, which I found this to be a massive point in its favour. At no point do the characters stand around telling each other things that they already know. Instead, we pick up the story naturally, through inference and action. I know that some people were annoyed by the way that some elements remain completely unexplained, but I loved the sense of mystery throughout and firmly believe that being given more information would have weakened the movie. We learn enough to be able to comprehend what is going on, even if the reasons why are left largely to our imagination.

The dialogue is largely improvised by the cast, which isn't always a good idea but in this case works splendidly and helps to give the movie its believable, naturalistic tone. Everyone talks like real people having real conversations, but without becoming staid. Much of the movie's offbeat sense of humour is in the dialogue, with the biggest laughs coming from Irish comedian Michael Smiley as Gal. The entire cast is very good, with the biggest stand-out being Neil Maskell as Jay.

The sound design is also terrific. For example in one scene, where Gal goes into a building looking for Jay, we hear noises that make us nervous about what we are about to see, and similar instances run through the movie. Jim Williams's score lends an ominous atmosphere to several scenes that would otherwise seem fairly natural.

I am going to discuss the ending of the movie at some length, so from here on there will be significant SPOILERS. If you just want to know if I think you should see it, then yes, you should definitely see it.

(If you read past this point and you haven't seen Kill List yet, you will probably be eaten by lions. Otherwise, I am going to assume that you have seen the movie.)

Kill List may move between genres, but it remains thematically consistent. Each part of the movie is about violence: verbal, physical, emotional. There aren't facile twists just put there to fool or surprise the audience. The structure of the movie allows it to start and finish with violence within the family unit; the movie opens with Shel and Jay already in the middle of a screaming argument, and it ends with them fighting to the death with knives. The final scene is telegraphed early when the whole family has a swordfight that ends with Jay playfully stabbing Shel and their young son Sam with rubber swords. Their fights throughout the movie are always followed swiftly by making up, and they seem to accept that violent rage is in both of their natures. This makes the end hurt all the more – you can't come back from stabbing your wife and child to death.

In fact, it is Sam who instigates the bloodletting by slapping Jay when he's shaving and causing him to cut himself, smiling in a way that makes it look deliberate. The tissue that Jay uses to staunch the wound is later taken by Gal's new girlfriend Fiona, in the same scene where she secretly carves a symbol into the back of Jay & Shel's bathroom mirror, which I took to represent the gallows seen near the end of the movie.

The theme of blood sacrifice is continued in a scene just before Jay and Gal head off to meet the client, when Jay finds the remains of a dead rabbit on the lawn. He thinks that the cat has left it there as an offering. Shel thinks that the cat just enjoys killing rabbits. Jay decides to accept the offering and cooks and eats the rabbit. This is mirrored at the end of the movie, when Jay and Gal are in the woods staking out their last victim and Gal kills and guts two rabbits for dinner, foreshadowing his own gutting at the hands of the cult. Another piece of mirroring is that the cat is strung up by Shel and Jay's front door; at the end of the movie, one of the cult members voluntarily hangs herself.

Perhaps the most overt scene of bloodletting occurs during the client meeting. The sinister man who is setting up the job unexpectedly grabs Jay's hand, mutters “Necessary,” and slices it open with a knife. He then cuts open his own hand and presses their blood onto a sheet of paper. The symbolism here is blunt and unmistakable. A contract sealed in blood has long been indicative of a deal with the devil.

A religious theme runs through the entire movie in general. At the beginning, Shel stops Gal from saying grace at the table, and Gal is shown to be Catholic at several points. He also bristles at the suggestion that Protestantism and Catholicism are the same religion. Jay is shown explicity rejecting God and religion in a confrontation with a Christian group at a restaurant. Later, when they try to find out what the purpose of the kill list is, the client informs them that it is a "reconstruction".

There are also many references to Arthurian legend throughout. Sam wants to hear a King Arthur bedtime story. Jay is seen stabbing Shel and Sam with toy swords in the scene I mentioned earlier. Jay mentions at one point that he wants to get a dog and name it either Arthur or Gwinnie (shore for Guinevere). Gal could be short for Galahad. Jay's entire journey (which is a kind of inversion of the monomyth codified by Joseph Campbell in The Hero's Journey) is reminiscent of the quests that knights went on to prove themselves worthy of joining the Round Table, and at the end he is accepted by the cult by having a wicker crown placed upon his head.

There is a lot of more general symbolism running through the movie, some of which takes the form of thematic jokes. For example, Fiona's description of her job in Human Resources and how she is assigned to terminate people from the organization who are no longer necessary. She is also the person who recruits Jay in the first place, with the dinner scene serving as a job interview. There are also more obvious things, like the way that Jay and Gal pass through a literal tunnel to travel from the grey Yorkshire suburbs to the lush, green pastoral location of the cult's headquarters. I could mine the script endlessly for this sort of thing.

Kill List is also very careful with its violence. At first it plays coy, refusing to show us either the dead rabbit near the start or the video Gal finds in a porn-filled lockup which is so disturbing that it sends Jay completely over the edge. We never even get a description of the video, we just hear women screaming horribly while Gal looks disgusted and Jay grows visibly enraged. Because of this, we are somewhat unprepared for the scene shortly afterwards when Jay takes a hammer to the man who he holds responsible for the contents of the video. In this scene, the camera first cuts to close-ups as Jay bludgeons a man's knee and hand and then watches dispassionately in a single shot as he beats the man's head into pulp. Following this up swiftly with a scene showing Jay repeatedly slamming someone's head into a wall until his face is a ruined mess means that for the rest of the movie we are on edge, waiting for him to do something else equally vile.

Kill List is a strong contender for becoming an enduring horror classic. I think it will probably stand with modern classics like The Wicker Man, Angel Heart, Candyman and Martyrs as one of the defining horror movies of its time. It's nice to see a new-ish horror movie that is this ripe for analysis.

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