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Review: Clever and Eerie Low-Budget British Shocker, Kill List

Photo of Matt Mueller By Matt Mueller | Thompson on Hollywood September 2, 2011 at 5:47AM

From London, critic Matt Mueller reviews Kill List:On the night before its UK release, I popped along to a screening of low-budget British shocker Kill List, followed by a Q&A session with director/co-screenwriter Ben Wheatley and the film’s lead actors, Neil Maskell (Atonement), MyAnna Buring (The Descent) and Michael Smiley. Skitting through genres with nonchalant ease, from observational marital drama to violent hitman thriller to grubby pagan horror, Kill List built up a fair head of steam following appearances at SXSW and London’s recent horror-themed Frightfest, and it’s fair to say the hype is fulfilled. The small crowd of industry folk I watched it with were literally speechless as the credits rolled, still in a state of shock when Wheatley et al gingerly stepped out of the dark to answer a few questions.
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Thompson on Hollywood

From London, critic Matt Mueller reviews Kill List:

On the night before its UK release, I popped along to a screening of low-budget British shocker Kill List, followed by a Q&A session with director/co-screenwriter Ben Wheatley and the film’s lead actors, Neil Maskell (Atonement), MyAnna Buring (The Descent) and Michael Smiley. Skitting through genres with nonchalant ease, from observational marital drama to violent hitman thriller to grubby pagan horror, Kill List built up a fair head of steam following appearances at SXSW and London’s recent horror-themed Frightfest, and it’s fair to say the hype is fulfilled. The small crowd of industry folk I watched it with were literally speechless as the credits rolled, still in a state of shock when Wheatley et al gingerly stepped out of the dark to answer a few questions.
Thompson on Hollywood


What Wheatley has concocted (with the able assistance of his wife/co-writer Amy Jump) is a strange, frightening, deeply unpredictable chiller about an ex-British soldier (Maskell) suffering post-traumatic stress, locked in a volatile relationship with his wife (Buring) and embarking on a series of professional hits with his best friend (Smiley). It sounds straightforward enough but Kill List is eerie from its opening frames and marks its maker out as a talent to watch. Wicker Man is an obvious influence, and Wheatley also cites Parallax View, Race With The Devil and Don Siegel’s The Killers, but much of Kill List’s cleverness comes in its expert use of jarring time lapses and fragmented storytelling to thoroughly upend audience expectations.

“I conceived it as a horror film but one that looks at genre through the filter of social realism and ’70s and ‘80s British teledramas,” Wheatley told us. “The horror crowd seem to love it but then it’s got other stuff for other tastes.”

It’s not without its flaws. Wheatley doesn’t worry much about dangling strands or unanswered questions but it doesn’t make his second feature (following the 2009 crime drama Down Terrace) any less compulsively hypnotic. Like the three perplexed leads, you’re compelled to keep following the clues to see where Kill List leads - no matter how unpleasant the journey becomes along the way and how horrible you just know the final outcome is going to be.

Wheatley isn’t planning to back up Kill List with further shockers. He’s had enough of hardcore for now. “I’m traumatised by this film; I want to do something funny and life-affirming next,” he says. That’s most likely to be Sightseers, a comedy that Edgar Wright is executive producing. Wheatley says he’s also in development on a Claymation feature set in a mixed prison called Mega-Evil Mother Fuckers. We’re sure he wasn’t joking.

This article is related to: Box Office, Genres, Reviews, Interviews , Fall, Thriller, Horror


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.