You ever get entangled in a situation, thinking it's one thing when really it's an altogether different ball of wax? That's kind of the experience of watching Kill List. Director Ben Wheatley (Down Terrace) keeps switching up the narrative terrain upon which his characters travel, keeping us on our feet, guessing as to where exactly his drama/thriller/horror-hybrid of a genre film will land.
At first, we appear to have a domestic drama akin to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. But as we move into the second act, Wheatley has placed two of his characters in the role of contract hit men. And then, finally...no, I wouldn't dare spoil what happens in the astonishing, game-changing third act. My advice is to actively resist foreknowledge of where Kill List heads in its final third. Go in blind, I tell thee.
The action of the film centers around Jay (Neil Maskell), a family man whose long-term unemployment (due to mysterious circumstances on a job gone wrong in Kiev) has led to marital strife with his wife Shel (MyAnna Buring). It doesn't help matters much that his old military buddy Gal (Michael Smiley) has mentioned the possibility of a job for Jay to Shel before bringing it up with him. All of which causes Jay and Shel to make like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton over dinner with Gal and his girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer).
Next thing you know, Fiona's in the bathroom, carving an obscure symbol into the back of Jay and Shel's bathroom mirror; the first of many clues offered up by Wheatley that things are not what they seem. The observation is only reinforced as the film moves away from the domestic to tell the story of what happens after Jay accepts the job with Gal. Guess what, it isn't pretty.
Be prepared for a graphically violent exploration of the tendencies that drove Jay away from the workplace, as well as what makes him uniquely suited for the kind of work that he and Gal do. Along the way, Wheatley offers up some fairly strong hints that Jay's proclivity for the work springs from a less than healthy mind. Even Gal, whose attitude towards the work they do suggests the ho-hum aura of a door-to-door salesman rather than that of a hit man, seems to recoil in horror when faced with Jay's chilling embrace of whatever it takes to get the job done.
Like I hinted above, where the film heads from there is best discovered as it plays out across the screen. Kill List is one of the few films that I've seen in recent years that contains a final act that effectively redefines what came before it. Wheatley's film isn't flawless; there are times when the numerous breadcrumbs pointing to the denouement feel overstated, and the second act feels a bit soft at times (even as some of the more grisly sequences of violence play out), but the chilling payoff at the end elevates the film beyond the stuff of mere exploitation and into the realm of WTF?!
Kill List had its Portland premiere last month during the Portland International Film Festival's PIFF After Dark late night screening series. It begins its regular run at the Hollywood Theatre on Friday, March 2nd. Showtimes and advanced tickets are available here.