As the 21st Century entered its second decade, Britain was one of many countries feeling the brunt of the global recession. Across the country, family life was deteriorating as a result of financial insecurity and unemployment, while the very bedrock of the economy was crumbling at its very foundation. In addition to the financial crisis, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were far from a distant memory, their aftermath still felt by the collective consciousness. In 2011, when Ben Wheatley unleashed his hitman-horror beast Kill List on the world, he gave us a film that encapsulated the real world fears of our everyday lives, while manifesting an unfiltered fear of the unknown that tends to only be experienced in one’s darkest nightmares.
The horror films that stand the test of time are reactions to their cultural climate. George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was a metaphor for consumerism, and one of the reasons why it still holds up is because its social commentary is still as relevant today as it was back then. Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a product of the Vietnam war; other wars have come and gone since, but the wave of widespread fear and panic that comes with conflict is timeless. Fast forward to a more contemporary climate, the New Wave of French Extremism was a movement responding to the right-wing politics of a nation at the time; it ushered in a new era for horror cinema, where boundaries were pushed and barriers were broken to produce films that were unrestrained and visceral, underpinned by scathing commentary and philosophical leanings. Kill List combined all of these factors to an extent, and made an unapologetic statement about modern Britain, while masterfully pummeling the audience with a tour de force of pure horror.
The film doesn’t waste time thrusting the viewer into an uncomfortable situation, as it opens with main character Jay (Neil Maskell) and his wife Shel (MyAnna Buring) embroiled in a heated domestic argument regarding their finances. We learn that Jay has been idle for months, and his unemployment has been detrimental to their marriage, as well as their bank account. Moments later, we see Jay telling his son a bedtime story based on personal experience, regarding an incident that occurred while he was in the military. Later on, during a dinner party, the tension between Jay and Shel is amplified when an argument breaks out in front of Jay’s old army pal Gal (Michael Smiley) and his girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer), but it spurs Jay on to return to work as a contract killer. Their new assignment is a seemingly routine job, where they are tasked with carrying out a series of assassinations. Little do they know they’re about to become pawns in something much bigger and very sinister.
From the outset, there is a palpable sense of claustrophobic dread and unsettling tension, and the threat of violence is tangible in every frame. To say it gets under the skin is an understatement; the feeling that something bad is about to happen is constant, and it’s only a matter of when before it viciously encloses itself around you, much like a bear trap. Inspired by the works of Alan Clarke, Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, the film employs a social realist approach despite its obvious supernatural undercurrent. The British kitchen sink drama reminiscent of the aforementioned filmmakers is fused with surreal, ambiguous paranoia in the vein of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby or Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View. In addition, Wheatley draws on influences from Britain’s folklore horror cinema, like Blood On Satan’s Claw and The Wicker Man; the myriad of inspirations shouldn’t work on paper – a crime thriller crossbred with a family drama and arthouse-flavoured occult horror film sounds like a guaranteed clutter, but thankfully Wheatley isn’t interested in mixing genres for the sake of it. It’s a horror film through and through, where the characters just happen to be criminals and interact like real human beings.
Much like the early films of Quentin Tarantino – which Wheatley has described as influences on his own work on numerous occasions – Kill List is a villain’s movie. The relationship between Gal and Jay is not too dissimilar to that of Jules and Vincent in Pulp Fiction – both are hitmen, who shoot the breeze about life between committing acts of remorseless violence. Despite being devoid of a moral compass, they are still humanized through their relatable interactions and real world problems. However, in Kill List, the atrocities are portrayed so cruelly and violently that it serves as a bludgeoning reminder that these aren’t people we should be rooting for; the whole film is about bad people doing bad things to other bad people at the behest of other bad people. The morality of the tale comes with the repercussions of their actions. No matter how much we might relate to them, or find ourselves drawn to their personalities, the fact of the matter is that they’re rotten to the core.
In most horror films, there comes a point where the characters know that they’re in peril just in time to stop it – or at least try to. In Kill List, they enter the heart of darkness unbeknownst and don’t realize they’re doomed until they collide with the forces of evil, like incoming traffic. Clues are planted throughout, but Jay and Gal keep on descending further down the rabbit hole unaware that its closing behind them. This all leads to a final act so unexpected it was tailor-made to polarize audiences. The lack of exposition and inexplicable ending have frustrated many, but sometimes films create such a mystifying experience that it’s better to leave them open ended for us to form our own interpretations. With Kill List, the effectiveness of its horror lies in its mystery, and leaving it without closure ensures that it stays with you long after.
Interpreting Kill List is a subjective experience, and its multi-layered themes and symbolism will undoubtedly inspire interesting scholarly articles and theses for years to come. It’s an emblem of the modern British family undergoing the strain of financial burden; it’s an exploration of the deconstruction of the social contract and the power of money. At its core it can even be viewed as an anti-war movie, with Jay’s downward spiral typifying the dehumanization that comes with taking lives on the battlefield. Whether you view it as a horror spectacle about hitmen embroiled in a sinister game, or a movie rooted in our very social fabric worthy of dissection, it’s a film that delivers visceral thrills and intellectual stimulation simultaneously.
Kill List is one of British cinemas finest exports and a bona fide modern horror classic.