Few movies have scarred and emotionally terrorized people (including some on the Playlist staff) more than this year's SXSW Film Festival entry "Kill List," the sophomore feature from Ben Wheatley ("Down Terrace"). With its intriguing mixture of kitchen-sink domestic drama, hit man thriller, and creepy mysticism, it's the rare horror film -- which isn't really a "horror film" per se, but includes psychological, emotional and physically horrifying moments -- that doesn't play into any conventions of the genre. Every time you think you've pegged it neatly into one of the aforementioned genres, it'll swing around and surprise you again, and the film concludes with an unexpected wallop that packs a visceral and psychically emotional punch that will leave you gasping for air and reeling on the floor. "Saw 3D" it's not.
The film opens in a fairly harmless fashion, with a married couple – Jay (Neil Maskell) and Shel (MyAnna Buring) – in crisis, struggling and bickering over money. She screams at him, decrying the fact that he hasn't had a job in eight months. One night they have some mutual friends over – Jay's best mate and old army buddy Gal (Michael Smiley) and his dark-eyed new girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer). While the two couples are at the dinner table, another fight erupts and Jay smashes the plates, leaving the rest of the evening to act as a prolonged reconciliation, with the visiting couple having to act as intermediaries and repairmen (helping with Jay and Shel's young son, encouraging lines of communication, and the like).
But during the night, Fiona sneaks away to the couple's bedroom and carves a runic symbol on the back of the mirror. It's an odd, disquieting moment and the first portentous hint that things are quite amiss, since up until this point it's been a standard issue relationship drama, something that wouldn't be outside the wheelhouse of say, Mike Leigh or Mike Figgis. And it's in this moment that Wheatley shows himself to be a skilled dramatist even before things start to go south. The action, even in later, spookier moments in the film, is depicted with an earthy realism, with a shaky, constantly moving digital camera that feels more John Cassavettes than John Carpenter.
It's after that drunken, emotionally battered night that Jay seizes the opportunity to go in on a strange job with Gal. Shadowy? You better believe it. They meet a well-manicured man in an upscale hotel and he consecrates their assignment -- it's a contract killing deal -- by slashing Jay's palm open and letting him know they know about the "Kiev incident" -- the mysterious crime that Jay was involved in, while in the army. This "Kiev incident" is mentioned several times by several characters but an explanation for what, exactly, happened is never provided. It's during this meeting that they procure the "kill list," and it's off to work they go.
Their first target is a priest, which is fairly straightforward, except for the sly smile he shoots at Jay before being snuffed. The second list member is a librarian, who, it turns out, owns a storage crate full of ghastly, unfathomable videos (what seem to be, but might not be, child porn or snuff films). In a sign of the movie's emphasis on mood and atmosphere over explicit physical horror (although, it should be said, there's plenty of that too), we just observe as the two hired guns stare agape in horror at the video, never seeing what are on the actual tapes, but hear bloodcurdling screams. Whatever's on screen is enough to enrage and electrify the hitmen into action, and Jay essentially turns into the physical embodiment of hellbound wrath, unleashing a hyper violent fury on the librarian that is just one trauma of many to come. It doesn't stop there, Jay tortures the man until he tells them where the videos are shot and another torrent of violent terror reigns down -- and one that even begins to scare Gal.
From here on out, the movie becomes an even wilder, more unpredictable ride. Back at home, Fiona is becoming more chummy with Shel, while on the road, Jay's hand wound has spread and is festering, which lends the movie shades of David Cronenberg-ian body-horror and makes for a nice, "Rosemary's Baby"-ish moment where Jay is consulted by an oddly complacent and unconcerned doctor. Jay asks where his regular doctor is, but doesn't get an oblique, puzzling response. The psychological tar unleashed in Jay during these two killings is simply too much for the man that is already very psychologically unhinged. Gal and Jay get into a physical altercation and then they ultimately decide that it's become too much for them to bear and Jay has to get out. They go to the shadowy, well-manicured men and ask to be let go of their duties; the men reply that if they leave, they (and their families) will be murdered. So they stay on the job, consequences be damned.
It's in the third act that the shit really hits the fan, though, with the entire film taking on cultish, "Wicker Man"-ian overtones that will leave even the most jaded cinemagoer shaking in their seats. The culmination of the film, and the succession of jaw-droppingly surprising moments (twists and turns aplenty) therein wouldn't have made much of an impact, though, if the groundwork hadn't been laid. As creepy and terrifying as "Kill List" is, the real star of the picture is Wheatley's elementally sharp gaze and filmmaking craft (though kudos to the excellent performances by the entire cast which also bolster the film). From claustrophobic, but subtle framing, to an amazingly unnerving score/sound design, to eerily clipped inventive editing, this is simply tremendously pointed filmmaking and makes for an increasingly intense experience that starts to sweat with dread. The rising anxiety of the picture is masterful, the alarmingly portentous qualities of the film seem to be built into its DNA far before things go brutally wrong. It's less about the shock and more about the impact. Completely unsettling and wired throughout with a a subconscious anxiety, "Kill List" will leave your bones rattling. [A-]