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Cult Horror, Plus Some Hatred On The Homefront

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
February 3, 2012

When the ABC show Lost ended its run after six seasons, there was an understanding among its devoted fans — and there were said to be one or two of them on the Internet — that only a fraction of the many questions it posed would be answered. The finale nonetheless cleaved them into two camps: those who were disappointed that the plot threads they had blogged about so obsessively hadn’t paid off, and those who more blithely accepted the inevitable and left with an appreciation of what the show had given them.

Ben Wheatley’s Kill List is like the Lost phenomenon in miniature, an often brilliant mix of retro horror and British kitchen-sink melodrama that teases out mysteries large and small — far too many for it to resolve — only to collapse in a bloody, calamitous heap. The question is what lingers: the outrage over the vile ironies of its climax, or the unnerving 85 minutes that precede it, with its savvy fusion of contemporary psychodrama and the sinister mythology of cult classics like The Wicker Man and Rosemary’s Baby. Perhaps there’s a sensible middle ground here, like thinking of Kill List as an essential letdown or a vital disappointment — whatever the case, its failures and successes are considerable.

Following up his acclaimed debut feature Down Terrace, a gangster drama that also mixed genre shocks with dark comedy and explosive family spats, Wheatley gives Kill List a discordant tone that makes it feel like a horror film even when it isn’t. A pugnacious Neil Maskell stars as Jay, an ex-soldier who now treats his home as a battlefield, with his equally tempestuous Swedish wife Shel (MyAnna Buring) serving as the enemy. When Jay’s best buddy Gal (Michael Smiley), a fellow veteran with a cooler temperament, joins them for dinner with his peculiar new girlfriend (Emma Fryer), it’s a like a scene out of a John Cassavetes movie, all shouting matches and flying plates.

With Jay’s finances dwindling and his marriage on the brink, Gal presents him a lucrative opportunity: The two have been offered a generous sum to use their mercenary skills to assassinate three men. Though Jay proves all too eager to do it — in part for the money, in part to satisfy his disturbing blood lust and in part just to get out of the house — things go awry from their very first meeting, when a mysterious old man makes him sign an agreement via involuntary blood oath. Then, once they’re on the hunt, more peculiar things happen — as when the first victim offers a gracious “thank you” in the seconds before Jay takes his life.

Questions abound — over the motives of the creepy old-timers running the contracts, the connection between the figures on the kill list, the reasons why Jay and Gal were handpicked for the task. Then there’s the issue of Jay’s shocking volatility on the job, where he’s either working out some demons or some demons are working out of him. There are other curiosities, too, like the symbol Gal’s girlfriend scratches into the back of Jay’s bathroom mirror, or the terrible rituals that culminate in the frenetic nightmare of the film’s final act.

Throughout Kill List, Wheatley takes a cavalier attitude toward tone that’s mostly refreshing, as Jay’s relationships with the two people closest to him, Shel and Gal, lurch from affection to knock-down-drag-out fights and back around again. Wheatley isn’t afraid to put Jay’s harrowing domestic and professional affairs on roughly equal footing, and he infuses the darkest moments with gallows humor. For a time, Kill List seems cued to the offbeat syncopations of its hero’s restless soul, which flickers with a tenderness that’s snuffed by violence.

Yet Kill List’s exhilarating devil-may-care recklessness proves to be its undoing, too, when Wheatley has to bring this runaway train into the station. More forgiving viewers may recognize that he’s tipping his hat to the heedless paganism of The Wicker Man, but the final minutes whiff more of a filmmaker who’s reaching desperately for an ending he hasn’t entirely solved. But at least he’s reaching. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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