out of Five
Running time: 95
Utterly gripping, deeply unsettling and genuinely terrifying, this is a brilliantly directed, superbly written British horror film with terrific performances from its three leads.
What's it all about?
Written and directed by Ben Wheatley (Down Terrace), Kill List stars Neil Maskell as Jay, an unemployed ex-soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, who's under pressure to provide for his wife Shel (MyAnna Buring) and their young son Sam (Harry Simpson). When Jay's best friend and fellow veteran Gal (Michael Smiley) offers him some lucrative work as a hitman (not for the first time), he jumps at the chance, even when their sinister client (Struan Rodger) insists he sign the contract in blood.
However, as Jay and Gal work their way through their “kill list”, it gradually becomes apparent that something very, very strange is going on. For example, why do all Jay's victims thank him before he kills them? Why does one of the victims have a file on both his would-be killers? And what exactly is Gal's weird new girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer) up to?
Neil Maskell is terrific as Jay, delivering a compelling, intriguingly layered performance that draws you deep into the story; he also generates strong chemistry with both his co-stars. Similarly, Buring is superb as fierce-tempered Shel (significantly, Shel is also ex-army), while Down Terrace scene-stealer Michael Smiley brings welcome notes of dark humour as Gal; their dialogue is often laugh-out-loud funny.
Down Terrace was widely praised for seamlessly blending Mike Leigh-style domestic bickering with a British gangster movie and Wheatley pulls off a similar trick here, fusing hitman thrillers, Alan Clarke-style socio-realist commentary and classic horror films (it's tempting to list them, but that would give too much away and it's much better if you go in knowing as little as possible). In addition, the script is brilliantly structured, ensuring that subsequent viewings of the film will reap rich rewards.
Wheatley's direction is extremely assured, cranking up both the tension and the sinister atmosphere to almost unbearable levels and introducing a level of unpredictability in each scene that is deeply unsettling. He also pulls off impressive shifts from dark humour to suspense to shocking violence to gut-wrenching horror and back to emotionally engaging family drama, often within a single scene.
There's also a superbly conceived soundtrack from Jim Williams that effectively heightens the tension and makes brilliant use of some genuinely disturbing sounds.
Kill List is a brilliantly directed, genuinely scary British horror film that will really get under your skin. It also confirms writer-director Ben Wheatley as one of the most exciting British directors working today. Highly recommended and one of the best films of the year.