Toronto International Film Festival 2011: ‘Kill List’


Director: Ben Wheatley

Cast: Neil Maskell, Michael Smiley, MyAnna Buring, Emma Fryer

Country: United Kingdom

Kill List is the single most demented horror film I have seen in years, and maybe also the very best. Defying any genre expectations — the first 40 minutes or so take place at a highly naturalistic, Mike Leigh-esque dinner party, for example — and pushing viewers toward a thoroughly baffling blood-soaked ending, there is nothing much here that’s familiar. Which is why it all feels so fresh, so invigorating, and, eventually, so goddamn terrifying.

The story is, simply, about two veterans of the war in Afghanistan (Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley) who have become hit men now that they are back in London. The main character (Maskell) is struggling after a long period of unemployment — he has been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after a botched job — and battling endlessly with his wife (MyAnna Buring) over their crippling debts (and just about everything else). During the lengthy and deeply tense dinner party, his friend and partner (Smiley) convinces him to pull another job with him (“to get back on the horse”) which will involve running down a “kill list” of three people who, apparently, need to die. They’ll be well paid, and he needs the work, so he accepts the gig and off they go.

To say much more about the plot would be to spoil the fun, but suffice it to say that, as they try to carry out the job, things get complicated. And by “complicated”, I mean “mind-fuckingly horrifying”. It won’t however, give anything away to suggest that, at the root, this film is about the post-War on Terror economic crises that have gripped much of the world. This subtext comes through in a variety of clever and subtle ways, from an offhand remark from one significant character (Emma Fryer) that she works in human resources (“so, you sack people?”) to the underlying reason for getting into the murder-for-hire game: credit card debts.

The script is a gripping tangle of nods to bigger questions about religion, morality, labour, sexuality and psychology, the cleverness of which is only amplified by the utter brilliance of the performances from the four main players. Though I wish it held together a bit more completely — one is left with myriad questions at the end that can never be answered — this is clearly by design. In no way will everyone be glad they saw this film — it is intensely violent and many people walked out during the press screening — but those for whom it works will find the experience has been memorable, if a little hard to process.

RATING 8 / 10