Film Review: Kill List

What starts out looking like a convincingly grubby but unexceptional U.K. crime picture takes an eleventh-hour detour into way spookier territory: Audiences willing to go with it are in for a real treat.

Kill List opens with a bit of rip-roaring marital discord that seems to be all about money but has an elusive undercurrent; no surprise on either count, since money is both one of the top triggers for fights between couples and one of the issues most often used to mask deeper and darker discontent. Middle-class suburbanites Ray and Shel (Neil Maskell and MyAnna Buring) have bona fide financial problems: Shel is a stay-at-home mother to seven-year-old Sam (Harry Simpson), Ray hasn't worked in eight months, and not only are they genuinely tapped out, but Ray is in deep denial.

Under the circumstances, having a cozy little dinner party for Ray's friend Gal (Michael Smiley) and his lean and hungry-looking new girlfriend, Fiona (Emma Fryer), looks like a recipe for disaster. And sure enough, Ray and Shel wind up having the kind of screaming fight that would send most guests running for their cars. Not Gal and Fiona, though: Gal has a little man-to-man talk with Sam, assuring him that grown-ups have silly fights and make up just the way kids do. What Fiona's doing in the bathroom is more mysterious and less reassuring: Is she really carving some kind of mark on the back of the mirror?

In any event, by the end of the evening several things have come into focus: Gal and Ray are freelance hit men. Their last job went straight to hell and shattered Ray's nerves, but Gal has a new gig lined up and believes Ray is ready to get back on the horse. It's an easy one, Gal promises, and the minute Ray says he's in, the atmosphere at home improves immediately.

Even after meeting the client (Struan Rodger), an odd old duck who insists the contract be signed in blood, Ray doesn't flinch…not much, anyway. He's got to provide for his family and square things for Gal, who stuck with him when the going got tough. They're handed a three-man "kill list" and, to be honest, it's a real conscience-soother: Each man on it seems like a right bastard without whom the world would be a vastly better place. To say more about Kill List's plot would be to ruin one hell of a dark surprise; suffice it to say that it both owes more than a little to one of the most highly regarded U.K. cult movies of the early ’70s and captures that film's uniquely unsettling atmosphere better than either its recent U.S. remake or more recent U.K. sequel.

Not that anyone needs to know any back story to enjoy the hell out of Kill List: Husband-and-wife screenwriters Ben Wheatley (who also directed) and Amy Jump's journey into the heart of darkness proceeds one logical step at a time and then pulls the rug right out from under your expectations without seeming like a cheat. In fact, the more you think about it, the more you suspect that Ray and Gal could have made any number of different decisions, taken a score of different turns and wound up in the exact same place, because it's where they've been going since long before this particular leg of the journey began. Stories this thoroughly thought out and carefully executed are sufficiently rare that it's easy to forget how utterly satisfying they are, so do yourself a favor and don't bypass Kill List because it looks as though it's just another Brit crime picture. It's not—it's a real kick someplace where it hurts.