Kill List (2011)

FEBRUARY 12, 2012


For the 2nd time in three days, I found myself at a late night screening of a horror film, because the theaters (both of them Laemmle’s) didn’t deem them worthy of showing more than once a day. But while that was clearly a wise decision for Don’t Go In The Woods, there was about 10-11 folks for Kill List, which could have doubled (given the strong reviews) at an earlier time on a work night. Also, if they showed it a couple of times, some folks with time on their hands might be compelled to buy a ticket for the next showing in order to see if it made any more sense.

Before I set out to watch the film I once again queried Twitter if it was really a horror film, and all but one guy said yes. However, one of those “yes” also inadvertently spoiled what made it a horror film by comparing it to another film, an aspect I will leave out of this review (but if you want to swipe the invisible text you can see the other genre it would belong to: Cult). As many others have said, it’s best to go into this one blind, but I’d even include the notion that it’s a horror film at all. Much like Audition, its placement in the horror genre is a bit of a surprise that is intentionally held from the viewer for a while, so even having a review on this site is putting you at a bit of a disadvantage. Again, this is why an early time would be helpful – I’ve heard good things about the movie and was interested in checking it out, but since it didn’t start until 10 pm, I had to get some sort of guarantee that it could count for my daily horror movie. If it was at 2 pm I would have just gone to the theater and watched it just for the sake of watching a potentially cool movie; if it was also horror: bonus!

Back to the 2nd viewing thing, it’s not a particularly complicated plot like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or whatever: it’s basically a movie about a hit man that starts to unravel during the process of carrying out a few assignments. However, writer/director Ben Wheatley doesn’t hand-hold or even fully explain much in the film; we’re sort of dropped into the situations with the assumption that we’ll catch up. The entire movie is akin to trying to find your place in a book that you haven’t read in months – each scene is the few paragraphs you’ll skim as you try to get to the right page. Some will make total sense, others will seem familiar, and others will be a total mystery (in the book metaphor, that would mean you’ve flipped too far).

However, it DOES stick to a three act structure, albeit an unconventional one. Our first act is an uncomfortable dinner party between our main character, his wife, his best friend, and the friend’s new girlfriend. Differences in opinion arise, the married couple snip at each other until they break down into a full blown shouting match, the buddies bust each other’s balls but seem to really mean what they say… it’s far from the most pleasant dinner, in other words. Also, at one point, the girlfriend does something quite peculiar, which won’t make much sense to us until much later in the film. This bugged me a bit; I think it was mostly due to the fact that I knew what it was pointing to (due to the Twitter spoiler), so I’m curious if totally blind viewers will think much of it, or if they’ll find it even MORE frustrating.

Anyway, the 2nd act is given to the “hero” and his buddy carrying out their assignments as hitmen. We don’t get too much info on their marks, and they all act a bit weird in the moments leading to their death (one target even pleasantly thanks our protagonist before getting shot between the eyes), but none seem like guys who had much to offer the world (one was a child molester, it seems). I should note that the thick British accents are a bit indecipherable to my ears at times, so perhaps there was some characterization that was lost on me (and people wanted to subtitle Attack The Block?).

It’s their final target/3rd act in which the horror elements really kick in, and they don’t disappoint. There’s an exciting and nerve-wracking chase sequence in a small tunnel, and even a minor home invasion bit in which the wife (The Descent’s MyAnna Buring, always a welcome presence) shows a bit of her own badass side. Again, I won’t explain who the villain or villains are, but it’s pretty hard to argue that this is a horror film when you see it/them bearing down on our main characters.

But it all just left me kind of cold. I appreciated the unconventional approach and the fact that I was never able to guess where the story was going next, but I also started getting the feeling that Wheatley was making his film obtuse just for the hell of it. Perhaps another viewing or two (and maybe a subtitle track) would clear a few things up, but I’m never big on that approach. Further viewings giving you new perspective on certain events can be a lot of fun, like realizing that Kevin Pollak is laying down in the cell in Usual Suspects – but it’s not a requirement, and I knew for sure that I loved that movie after one viewing. Thus, I wasn’t sure if I liked it; I was spending so much of it just trying to get a handle on who everyone was and how they related to each other, I was never able to just sit back and enjoy the story. It’s like when you read "Hamlet" in English class – it’s a great piece of literature, but when the teacher is constantly reminding you that you are going to be tested on it, it kind of takes the joy out of the discovery.

I can definitely attest to its technical merit; I was overjoyed to see that the Laemmle was projecting a glorious 35mm print (after watching a damn Blu-ray for Woods), because this is a dark film and an ugly digital projection would mar the deep blacks and shadows, particularly in the 3rd act (which is set in near total darkness at times). The bleak subject matter was perfectly matched to the cinematography; even in scenes of relative lightness, the pale gray/blue look and often handheld camerawork is there to remind us that this is grim and uneasy territory. It’s interesting to note that the “warmest” colored scene in the film is when a group of Christians break out into song at a restaurant where our protagonists are dining in between kills. Sure someone has some theories on that; I just thought it was nice to see the color orange for once. The film has an unnerving sound design as well; a shame this particular theater's sound system was not the best fit for it, but in a way that's kind of a win - it worked despite a lackluster setup.

Basically, it’s the sort of movie I wish I didn’t have to write a review based on one viewing. Movies like Sauna I was able to re-watch the DVD and get a firmer grasp on its content before putting my thoughts into writing, but I don’t have that luxury with Kill List (well, not for free – it’s also on OnDemand I guess). Maybe I’m just dumb, I don’t know. I can definitely say it’s one of the more challenging and unique genre films in a while, and given the high praise bestowed upon it by several of my peers, I would guess that as long as you were patient and willing to take the dare, you’ll enjoy it as well.

What say you?


  1. Your thoughts almost mirror mine 100%, though I would say that I wasn't really a fan of the way it was shot (that said, I was watching a fairly poor quality screener--for whatever reason, IFC doesn't even make theirs anamorphic!). If someone were to ask me if I liked Kill List, I would tell them "not really, but I'm not sure."

    But I definitely want to see it again sometime because the third act turn is RIGHT in my wheelhouse. The stuff it riffs on is from one of my favorite genres, so I was surprised by how much it didn't really grab me (really liked that tunnel sequence though). I'm hoping subtitles will help too--cutting through the accents was one of my bigger problems.

  2. Hi there,

    I've seen it twice now and it got about a billion times better the second time. For me, it's the horror movie of the year and at least well worth watching if you are a fan of dark stuff. Even if it's sorta mysterious plotline isn't your thing, I bet you'd find something to dig...

  3. I'm just gonna say that I was blown away by this film. While I can understand that there is some confusion about the plot, after reading some stuff the director has said leads me to believe the movie is using (spoiler I guess) dream logic throughout the narrative. I think the fact that parts of it don't make sense is precisely the point. There were certain themes that went over my head (mainly the class conflict stuff), and there is more going on with the Christian dinner scene then what appears at first glance.

  4. I could not get past their thick accents...and i understood attack the blocks..there was no subtitles needed for that one.. but tryin to decipher the english accent took me out of the movie and of enjoying it.
    B ut i did love the end and the hunchback.

  5. This played the Brattle tonight and I'm still trying to wrap my head around it. I'm almost convinced that it went the "it's all a dream" route, especially since there's a scene early on in the backyard that nearly mirrors the closing moments in such an obvious way. Personally, I found the ambiguity of the mirror carving, and the "thank you's" infuriating. I'm all for a film that leaves its audience in as much of the dark as its protagonist as long as there's some sense to be made by the end. There's just too many things that don't make a lick of sense. It's a very good film, but it came damn near being a great one.


Movie & TV Show Preview Widget