‘Kill List’ a captivating spiral down into doom
"Kill List’’ is a scuzzy little cross between a crime movie and a horror freak-out that gets under your skin and stays there, even if you can’t understand half of what the characters are saying. It’s set in the north of England and all the characters except the hero’s Swedish wife talk as if they have hot Marmite in their mouths. Oddly, that borderline incomprehensibility adds to the movie’s relentless sense of doom.
At first, director and co-writer Ben Wheatley (“Down Terrace’’) lulls us into thinking he has made a domestic drama, albeit a nasty one. Jay (Neil Maskell) could be any mid-level insurance salesman having a breakdown and blowing the family’s holiday savings on a hot tub. In the screaming matches he has with wife Shel (MyAnna Buring) and the frustrations he vents to best chum Gal (Michael Smiley), he seems the latest edition of England’s angry young man - one who’s pushing 35, puffy, and possibly psychotic.
The extraordinary sound design by Martin Pavey, an otherworldly din of industrial scrapings and animal howling, suggests the demons pushing against the surface of what passes for normal here. It soon becomes apparent that Jay and Gal are Iraq war vets who’ve set up shop as contract killers. Furthermore, whatever went sour during a recent job in Kiev has left more than a few bolts rattling around in Jay’s skull. Hired for a series of hits by a mysterious old man (Struan Rodger), the two assassins set out with a professionalism that quickly comes unglued.
As events spiral beyond their control and their victims start thanking them before they die, Jay loses all sense of hit-man propriety. The film’s ultra-violence escalates in unexpected spurts - there’s a bit with a hammer that makes the elevator scene in “Drive’’ look like a scalp massage - and at times skirts the edges of comic nihilism. By subtracting context and conventional explanation from his story, Wheatley gives “Kill List’’ the allegorical undertow of a nightmare from which neither Jay nor we can awake.
The film’s cheapness works for and against it and, honestly, subtitles might have helped for the US market. The gore in “Kill List’’ is enough to have put it over with midnight film festival audiences and movie blogs with names like bloody-disgusting.com, but it’s the least convincing part of the show. What impresses is the feeling of a movie lurching steadily beyond the control of its characters, its audience, and even its filmmakers.
Toward the end, “Kill List’’ takes a hard left turn into another kind of movie entirely, one I can’t describe without spoiling the experience (other than to say it lifts off from a British horror classic that was recently remade to dire effect). In its tatty way, the film aims for the apocalyptic dread engendered by ’70s shockers like “Don’t Look Now’’ - a sense that the known universe is buckling under the stress of an evil beyond imagining. “Kill List’’ doesn’t get there, but it comes close. It’s a Nicolas Roeg movie on the cheap.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.