When I saw Ben Wheatley's Kill List at last year's Sydney Film Fest, I thought that it made the other horror films I'd seen there (Stake Land and Hobo With A Shotgun) look pedestrian by comparison. It seemed to me as I watched Kill List, with the memories of those other two films fresh in mind, that where they were treading some very familiar ground, this little English flick playing out in front of me was something original and exciting.
It was one of those rare times watching a movie when that little alarm goes off in your head... your eyes widen, and pulse quickening you sit up a bit straighter in your seat and think "wait a minute, I've never seen anything quite like this before". By the end of the fest it was not only my favourite horror entry, but favourite regardless of genre, beating out some other exceptionally good films such as Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins, Terrence Malick's Tree Of Life and José Padilha's Elite Squad: The Enemy Within.
That was back in June, and I wondered then if maybe I'd already watched the best movie I'd see that year. Six months later and Kill List has in fact turned out to be my favourite of 2011, and having seen it again recently I found it to be no less transfixing and haunting.
They say there's nothing really new under the sun, even in the realm of pure fantasy, where the sky's the limit and ideas should only be constrained by the extent of one's imagination (and in the case of cinema, the fatness of one's wallet). Where movies are concerned I think it's true to a certain extent, and there seems to be plenty of evidence around these days to support that claim, in the form of all the remakes, adaptations and sequels that are being foisted on us. In recent years, one method (or gimmick?) employed by a number of filmmakers seeking to inject some freshness into an original, but familiar story is the genre mashup, blend, crossover or whatever you want to call it. Sometimes it works, but often it feels too ham-fisted and ill-conceived to be really effective. Just because you clumsily shoehorn zombies and kung fu into your western doesn't mean it's going to be more exciting. To me the result is often that the whole is reduced to less than the sum of it's parts. Sometimes I'd rather just watch a good western... without the zombies. Or the kung fu.
And that's part of what makes Kill List so successful for me. I can't remember when I've seen a film combine disparate genres so seamlessly and with such a feeling of effortless fluidity. Especially given the nature of the film's structure - the different genres don't run parallel to each other so much as they are episodic, one following the other, almost neatly compartmentalised within each act of the film.
The first act is a classic example of British social realism, reminiscent of the "kitchen sink realism" of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. I quickly found myself so engaged by the seemingly mundane trials and tribulations of the main characters, that I honestly would have been more than happy for the film to continue in this direction, without veering into more fantastic territory:
Suburban couple Jay and Shel love each other, but in spite of that their marriage is rapidly falling apart. Shel is accustomed to a standard of living that they can no longer afford, because Jay hasn't been working. There's a sense that Jay is lost at sea and frustrated, despite the outward appearance of a stable, middle class home and family life. When the strain becomes too much, and comes to a very ugly head at a dinner party with Jay's old friend Gal and his new girlfriend Fiona, Jay is forced to reconsider his situation and take on a job that Gal is offering him.
This set up, which sounds mundane, is anything but. You see Jay and Gal aren't just old mates, they're professional hitmen, with a shady past that may include some very morally dubious mercenary work in other parts of the world. The two men prepare for their new assignment... but are unaware that Fiona may not be as naive and innocent as she appears.
From here the film shifts gears, turning into a gritty, deliberately paced hitman thriller, but the change isn't jarring at all, and in fact feels perfectly natural. It continues to feel fluid and natural even as events get more and more weird - eventually steering the film into it's third genre - outright horror. I'll give nothing else away, as I think it best to go into Kill List knowing as little as possible about the second and third acts.
I can find very little to complain about in Wheatley's second feature (I need to track down his first, Down Terrace). The performances are all virtually flawless, the whole cast of talented actors are obviously having fun, and really immersing themselves in their roles. Unsurprising, because as written by Wheatley and Amy Jump, the main characters are multi-layered, complex and endearing. The cinematography is right up my alley - carefully composed and framed shots imbued with plenty of stillness, giving the film room to breath and allowing each shot to sink in deeply.
Kill List isn't exactly bursting at the seams with action (again, think of my comparison to social realist cinema), but when the violence comes, you probably won't be ready for it, and it's likely to shock you. It's sudden, realistic and very, very nasty. It got under my skin and made me feel bad. Just the way it should.
If there's one complaint that I can level at this movie it's that I slightly preferred the tone of the first two acts to the overtly horrific climax, which is surprising considering my predilection towards horror. That said I still found the conclusion to be solid and memorable, so it's a minor quibble really, and didn't effect my overall enjoyment of the film.
With Kill List, Ben Wheatley has delivered a new and exciting cult classic. If you think so too, and if you ever meet Ben, maybe you'd like to say to him:
Some of the runners up for my top film of 2011 include Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive, Miguel Ángel Vivas' Kidnapped, Jee-woon Kim's I Saw The Devil, Lucky McKee's The Woman, Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins and Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene.