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Kill List
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by Peter Sobczynski

"The List Is Death"
1 stars

One of the great thrills of being a movie buff is being able to stumble completely unawares onto something and have it completely knock you out to such a degree that all you want to do is tell people how great it is as soon as you possibly can. I remember attending an evening of the 1991 Chicago International Film Festival and snagging seats for two movies that I knew barely anything about and having my mind blown by the back-to-back genius of "The Double Life of Veronique" and "Delicatessen." Years later, I got to attend a very advanced midnight screening of a little thing called "The Blair Witch Project" maybe a few weeks after its Sundance debut and long before its official release and attendant hype and watched in amazement as it so thoroughly worked over the crowd at the brew-and-view joint where it was held that the audience shushed the bartender when he spoke too loud (on quarter beer night, no less). The trouble is that because of the explosion of indie films, festivals and the Internet, the mania to be first on board with the potential Next Big Thing and to broadcast that allegiance across cyberspace has grown greater and greater as well and as a result, many movies--especially genre items--are almost reflexively being hyped as said Next Big Thing from the moment that they first unspool and while some live up to the hype (there is one coming out next week that does so in spades), most not only fail to live up their end of the bargain, they are bad enough to make you genuinely curious as to what their supporters could have possibly seen in them in the first place. Such a film is "Kill List," a British import from writer-director Ben Wheatley that arrives on these shores with all the usual hype about its violence, twisty plot and whatnot. Granted, I may have grown a tad cynical over the years but even so, that doesn't prevent me from recognizing that the film is a colossal bore that offers up a theoretically intriguing blend of different genres and then fails to do anything with them other than drown them in foul language, grotesque violence and a finale that can't decide whether it wants to be ludicrous or infuriating and therefore tries to do both and unfortunately succeeds.

Neil Maskell stars as Jay, an ex-Special Forces soldier who, upon returning home, has gone into business with best pal and fellow warrior Gal (Michael Smiley) as a hit man. Alas, in the wake of a job in Kiev gone horrifyingly wrong eight months prior (we are not privy to the details but we can deduce as to their grimness), Jay has been doing nothing but sitting around the house and getting loaded on booze and back pills, much to the consternation of exasperated wife Shel (MyAnna Buring) and the concern of their young son, Sam (Harry Simpson). With money running tight and tensions running high, especially in the wake of a disastrous dinner party with Gal and oddball new girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer), Jay finally decides to jump back into the saddle and go back to work with Gal, who has hooked them up with a mysterious sort who presents them with a list of three people for them to kill. It sounds normal enough to the duo but things get temporarily weird when their benefactor seals the deal by slicing open his palm with a knife and then unexpectedly doing the same to Jay as if it were the most ordinary thing imaginable. Despite this, the two go off on their road trip to take down their targets, which they do in the most grotesque ways imaginable, including bullets, hammers and brick walls to the head. And yet, something seems off (starting with the fact that each of their targets says "Thank you" before being dispatched) and things get even weirder when they return--Jay's beloved cat ends up in a bad way, the cut on his had becomes weirdly infected and it seems that their client is not yet through with them by a long shot.

I have not seen any of Wheatley's previous efforts--consisting of a bunch of YouTube video and the 2009 feature "Down Terrace"--but according to a rapturous article about him in the last issue of "Film Comment," it seems that he specializes in stories that mix up genres almost seemingly at random and include twists and turns to their seemingly straightforward narratives that veer in outright surreality. (In one, I learn, we apparently listen to a group of women cattily discussing the inappropriately old lover of a friend and discover at the end that said suitor is, in fact, an actual dinosaur.) That is certainly the case with "Kill List" but as this film painfully proves, merely mixing and matching genres in unexpected ways doesn't really amount to much in and of itself if there is no suggestion that the filmmakers have any idea of what they want to say or do with those changes other than simply pull the rug out from under our feet. The first chunk of the film, centering on the domestic squabbling between Jay and Shel, plays as a low-rent, low-class riff on the works of filmmakers like Ken Loach that is as abrasive and unpleasant as can be without being particularly interesting or edifying--they offer nothing more than a group of seemingly endless scenes of people either yelling at each other or brooding just before or after the yelling. After shifting into crime film mode, it becomes the kind of sub-Tarantino riff that lost whatever intrigue it might have once maintained around the time that "Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead" was slinking out of theaters back in the day as the two dopes roam around while indulging in mindless chit-chat in between bursts of gruesome gore that crosses the line into the downright repellent in the grisly extremes they depict.

However, as wayward and unsatisfying as the first two-thirds of the film are, it is in the concluding reels that "Kill List" veers from ambitious failure to complete crapfest. Unfortunately, to fully delve into its final act failings would require me to give up too many alleged spoilers and that would not be fair to Wheatley even though he himself dropped the ball by not giving viewers anything particularly worth spoiling in the first place. Suffice it to say, as Jay and Gal set off on what they believe is their final assignment, the film makes one final shift in both tone and genre. On IMDB, there are any number of complaints from viewers who disagreed violently with this final change on the basis that they felt that the film just dropped it on them for shock effect without offering any sort of buildup that might have made it seem consistent with the rest of the story. The problem with this section is not that it doesn't offer any sort of foreshadowing to this twist. If anything, it includes a little too much of it, including some weirdness in the opening credits, an otherwise unmotivated bit during the dinner party and Jay's trip to the doctor's office to get his now-infected hand checked out. The trouble is that this element is just so idiotically conceived and ineptly executed that even those who have somehow stuck with the film up to this point will find themselves throwing their hands up in frustration as it staggers to a conclusion that practically redefines the phrase "WTF!"

"Kill List" has been made with a certain understated style that suggests that Ben Wheatley might one day make a film of interest as long as he nails down a few particulars before heading to the set. First, he needs to acquire a screenplay that makes some degree of internal sense and which relies on more than silly and senseless shocks and twists to generate excitement and to move the story along. Then he needs to bring that screenplay to life with actors who are compelling and interesting--at the very least, he needs to pick performers who can enunciate well enough so that the dialogue doesn't turn into more of an unintelligible sludge than it already is. Finally, he needs to tell a story that does not bring itself to a conclusion simply by stealing outright from the ending of one of the classics of British cinema and then adding insult to injury by doing it badly. Okay, maybe following this list one lead him or us to an end result that is any happier than the one faced by his characters but it certainly cannot make things worse than they already are.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=22189&reviewer=389
originally posted: 03/15/12 15:57:47
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2011 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

3/14/15 Langano Keeps you on edge throughout with a clever payoff. 3 stars
2/20/15 James Had potential but flopped horribly. What the hell was that? 2 stars
6/10/13 jj absolute trash, tried to shock me but failed 1 stars
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  DVD: 14-Aug-2012


  DVD: 14-Aug-2012

Directed by
  Ben Wheatley

Written by
  Ben Wheatley
  Amy Jump

  Neil Maskell
  Michael Smiley
  MyAnna Buring

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