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Jason Panella

Kill List

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Kill List writer/director Ben Wheatley just had a movie premiere at TIFF (Sightseers), so I thought I'd bring this, his previous film, up. Just watched it, and I'm still trying to formulate some thoughts for a review. Has anyone seen it?

The movie follows two British ex-soldiers/hitmen (Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley) as they pick off the targets of the titular list. What starts off as a pitch-black crime film/domestic drama mash up adds another element into the mix, but it's hard to discuss it really without spoilers. Basically, the movie goes into full-tilt Wicker Man mode by the end.

I didn't love the movie, but man is it effective. It's unsettling on a number of levels — the violence, for one, is unflinchingly brutal, including one scene I actually had to turn away from for a bit. But where it really gets under the skin is when the line between mundane and surreal becomes more and more blurred. There's some really normal stuff in the movie that becomes really eerie in the context. Two scenes involve the simple act of waving hello, and both are pretty chilling.

The sound work is top-notch, too, and vital to the sense of dread that creeps more and more into the movie.

Edited by Jason Panella

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I wrote a short review of Kill List for DVD Verdict. I still don't know if I love the movie, but I love the mood it creates.

Edited by Jason Panella

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Wrestling with Sinister this weekend brought back the impact of Kill List afresh. It's director, Ben Wheatley, puts you in the cinematic equivalent of a headlock for an hour and a half and then throws you to the ground, leaving you speechless and gasping for air. It's what I naively hoped The Wicker Tree would be, but alas, Robin Hardy lacks Wheatley's chops.

There's an argument some of my more liberal Christian friends like to use when attempting to justify extreme darkness in films. It goes something like this: "A movie is valuable if it shows the toll of a life lived without Christ." The cleverness of Kill List is that it offers a picture of damnation so vivid and convincing it might very well send viewers to their knees.

"They're bad people," the main character mutters at one point. "They should suffer."

This is top ten material right here. But be forewarned: this is as far from Hollywood as horror films get.

Edited by Nathaniel

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This is top ten material right here. But be forewarned: this is as far from Hollywood as horror films get.

The more and more I reflect on it, the more I think I loved this movie (and the more I wish I would not have sold the DVD).

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Seeing the thread on Roeg's Don't Look Now pop back up got some of my brain gears turning. I knew Kill List reminded me of a film other than Wicker Man, but I couldn't put my finger on it 'til now: Don't Look Now. They're different in a lot of ways, yeah, but both filled me with the same sort of unease that really no other films have. (And, aesthetically, I think they're on the same page too.)

Edited by Jason Panella

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It's director, Ben Wheatley, puts you in the cinematic equivalent of a headlock for an hour and a half and then throws you to the ground, leaving you speechless and gasping for air. ...

There's an argument some of my more liberal Christian friends like to use when attempting to justify extreme darkness in films. It goes something like this: "A movie is valuable if it shows the toll of a life lived without Christ." The cleverness of Kill List is that it offers a picture of damnation so vivid and convincing it might very well send viewers to their knees.

Gasping for air? How about gasping for anything that would make me glad I watched it? This is one of those rare films — Bellflower and Compliance come to mind — that I really, really wish I could un-see.

It begins in a place of insufferable darkness, and seems determined to see just how much darkness we're willing to witness before its final push-you-over-the-edge/bet-you-didn't-see-that-coming finale. I hung in there because, well, some folks here seem glad they've seen it.

I'll try to make something out of the experience by posting a simple warning here: If you must proceed at all, proceed with extreme caution.

Maybe I'm missing something, but unless I read something very, very persuasive that shows me I really missed out, I'm inclined to think that this movie exists to entertain us with sickness instead of inviting us to conscientiously consider sickness. The film's revelry makes it seem like one of those movies that begs to be found in the collections of unstable young men who might actually end up doing violence. As with Bellflower, it feels like the filmmakers sat around and said, "How much do you think we can get away with?"

Making us watch somebody beat a man's head in with a hammer... I'm hard-pressed to think of a more gratuitous show of violence in a film.

Nathaniel, you mentioned Sinister. But Sinister had all kinds of genre-convention winking going on so I always knew that I was watching a movie about movies. It takes us on a journey of ideas. Where are this film's ideas? What am I to understand for having suffered through it? I found the characters deeply foolish and heartless to begin with, and I watched them sink into a mad orgy of violence and, what do you know, it all ends bad beyond belief. In the meantime, I now have to carry visions of their self-made hell in my head. It's like Apocalypse Now without any subtext, without anything but the most perfunctory nod to engaging a moral question, without anything bigger than its own ugly (and remarkably unimaginative) spectacle on its mind.

Jason, your review praises it because "it works." Okay, but works to what end? Porn works, too, apparently, or people wouldn't watch it. Sure, these are just depictions of violence; it isn't Faces of Death. But if someone filled a notebook with drawings of people carrying out satanic rituals and committing acts of violence, would the skill in their drawing be enough to merit praise and admiration?

There are countless movies and stories about how deals with the devil will land you in hell. But these characters are already in an ugly level of hell to begin with, and they're just bone-headedly flinging themselves deeper. I won't say it's impossible that somebody somewhere will find something worthwhile here, but dear God... I'm going to do my best to purge this experience from my memory.

Please understand: I mean this as a testimony of my experience with the film, not an attack on anybody. I will welcome information about why other people value this film. Because I am at a loss about they might say.

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Edited by Overstreet

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First of all, Jeffrey, you have my total sympathy. While I admire Kill List, I would never recommend it to anyone without extreme qualification. Furthermore, I detest films that offer torture as spectacle, and had to avert my eyes from the screen on more than one occasion. Most horror films in my personal pantheon were made before 1968 (the year Night of the Living Dead brought the genre kicking and screaming into the modern age), and I generally tip my hat to the Val Lewton modus operandi of implied violence. So, Kill List is an admittedly unconventional choice for me. I would never have sat through it if I didn't believe that the horrors on display were supporting a strong moral vision.

The first clue that told me the filmmakers might be on to something is when we find out that the main character was previously a soldier in Kiev, and did some very bad things while stationed there. Objectively speaking, there is a terrible kind of logic to his progression (or regression, if you will) from soldier to contract killer to Antichrist, or whatever it is he becomes in the final scene. The man lives by violence, and so he is crowned the Violent One. Hell is getting what you want. I consider this a moral statement, and whether you agree with it or not, whether you consider it facile or not, Ben Wheatley (his name recalls Dennis Wheatley, the late author of popular occult thrillers in England) renders it in uncompromisingly potent terms. Perhaps it will scare people into a state of mortal reflection, I don't know. All I can say is that it got through to me.

One of the reasons I was able to dissociate myself somewhat from Sinister is that it is couched in a familiar kind of horror rhetoric. The most effective scenes, I thought, were the ones that felt the most alien (the 8mm home movies). Kill List, however, offers no such reassurance. The way it disguises its ultimate intentions, evoking mood through long car trips and disastrous family dinners, is exceedingly clever, and juices up a rather generic framework.

Even so, I don't plan on ever watching it again.

Edited by Nathaniel

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Tyler   

This is one of those rare films — Bellwether and Compliance come to mind — that I really, really wish I could un-see.

Do you mean Bellflower? I remember you having a strong reaction to it.

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Yes, Bellflower.

Good. This means that I *am* succeeding in erasing that one from my memory. At least partially.

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Here is a Cinema Scope interview with Wheatley about KILL LIST, where they discuss the film's approach to violence and its cultural commentary.

Thanks for the link, Ryan. This interview more or less confirms that Wheatley had a specific vision for the film that extended beyond just wanting to gross people out, although this remark made me look askance:

"I wanted the viewer to like these people, even if they have sort of a shouty relationship. I think Jay and Shel's marriage is pretty good."

Um. Anyone who watches the movie and thinks that their relationship is "pretty good" is setting an awfully low standard for marriage.

Edited by Nathaniel

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Here is a Cinema Scope interview with Wheatley about KILL LIST, where they discuss the film's approach to violence and its cultural commentary.

Thanks for the link, Ryan. This interview more or less confirms that Wheatley had a specific vision for the film that extended beyond just wanting to gross people out, although this remark made me look askance:

"I wanted the viewer to like these people, even if they have sort of a shouty relationship. I think Jay and Shel's marriage is pretty good."

Um. Anyone who watches the movie and thinks that their relationship is "pretty good" is setting awfully low standards for marriage.

I was just going to say that. Yeeesh. And all of this stuff he says about government corruption and wartime compromises and the unhelpful claims about how one kind of bombing is the same as another... I don't see how this film gives us a meaningful exploration of such things. It doesn't strike me as any more thoughtful than "People damaged by doing violence are likely to do more damage and more violence." Okay, great, but why must we watch it? Are the possible outcomes anything more than either revulsion or lurid exhilaration?

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Okay, great, but why must we watch it? Are the possible outcomes anything more than either revulsion or lurid exhilaration?

Sorry you had to experience all of this, Jeff. I thought my warnings about the violence were pretty clear, but I guess not.

These are good questions too, Jeff. For me, his comment about the "endgame" of this kind of violence sticks. It's terrible, and I feel like the movie is commenting on the sorts of violent escapism people gravitate toward. Did we need to see that? I don't know. Probably not. But if anything, I feel like I've been re-sensitized to violence since I've seen this movie, and I'm feeling more and more OK to look away, like the interviewer suggests. There are some movies I'll never watch — or at least skip past — because of the violence (Pan's Labyrinth being one; I think the "bottle" scene is more horrifying than the hammer scene in Kill List). And despite my claims that I wish I wouldn't have sold this...like Nathaniel, I probably won't ever watch this again.

Jeff, the blurb for your Amour review mentions the capacity for evil in all of us which, for me, is where this movie really got to me. Taking a step back, I felt like Jay and Gal were normal in a lot of ways, which makes the progression of the movie even more horrifying. Does this make me an unstable young man? I hope not.

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But if anything, I feel like I've been re-sensitized to violence since I've seen this movie, and I'm feeling more and more OK to look away, like the interviewer suggests.

This was my experience as well, right down to not feeling behooved by Wheatley's work up to that moment to keep watching. I never got the impression that Wheatley was enjoying his staging of the violence. Jay's first display of violence in the film - the outburst at the dinner table - is so unsettling because of its domestic context, that I'd say it neuters any chance of his later activities being seen as cool/badass/exciting, a la Michael Mann.

Come to think of it, Kill List is actually a pretty terrific inversion of the Mann ethos. The way that Jay's violence affects him is externalized in a way that Mann tends to ignore with his family men who happen to kill. Jay is a killer who stumbles into being a family man.

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Come to think of it, Kill List is actually a pretty terrific inversion of the Mann ethos. The way that Jay's violence affects him is externalized in a way that Mann tends to ignore with his family men who happen to kill. Jay is a killer who stumbles into being a family man.

Wow. What a fantastic thought.

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I watched this and Sightseers last night. Sightseers was as - if I dare use the term - endearing as this one was relentless (sort of Badlands meets Harold and Maude).

 

Great comments here on this film. After seeing both though, I have to wonder if director Ben Wheatley isn't exploring where one can go with the idea (I'm paraphrasing - I can't find the actual quote at the moment) that we've gone searching for God, but have found the devil instead. Both have very distinct (supernatural?) cues as to when the devil is found or unleashed. Neither offers anything much in terms of answering the question.

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Watched this due to the praise it received here and elsewhere, and because I found a DVD copy at the house I'm renting in Scotland--they left behind double copies of Titanic and The Bucket List, lots of romantic comedies, and this film. Like Jeff said above, this is one of the few movies I wish I could unsee. I found it totally lacking in scares or thrills, but lingering on, perhaps reveling in, the violence depicted. And for what purpose? What ideas are really being explored here? Dreadful all around, especially as a parent. Up there with Frank Darabont's The Mist for a twisted ending prominently featuring the violent death of a child as the film's pinnacle scene.

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