Kill List

Kill List

Rating: ★★¼☆☆ 

You want to root for a director like Ben Wheatley. He makes films using relatively miniscule budgets but infuses them with enough style that you’d never know the difference. His playfulness toward genre demonstrates a deep knowledge of film history and a respect for the conventions he bends and reshapes. But after modest yet enthusiastic attention for 2009’s Down Terrace and his latest film Kill List, there’s something rather disappointing about his work up to this point. Though different, these two films are united by a style that now feels like Wheatley’s signature, a documentary-like realism that becomes prismatically shattered through elliptical editing in the form of frequent jump cuts. This stylistic approach tends to confuse the drab with the realistic and the vague and the provocatively suggestive, and because of this, it’s hard not to see the divisive, love-it-or-hate-it reactions to {Kill List} as indicative of some fundamental problems in Wheatley’s approach, drawing some viewers in to its implied depths while leaving others wholly exiled in indifferent ambivalence.

Kill List’s problems start from its premise, which concerns two former military men who take a job as contract killers. We learn little about protagonists Jay (Neil Maskell) and Gal (Michael Smiley), the most suggestive bit of information being a series of references to some disastrous experience in Kiev, a word that comes to sound less like the name of a place and more like a shadowy icon of the buried, incomprehensible past. Because of this, it’s difficult for us to find an entry point to identification with either of them. Identification is not always necessary, of course, but it is often fundamental to the horror genre. Distance can be useful too, enhancing our ability to coolly observe these characters–this is one reason why we value documentaries, which have a lot in common with Wheatley’s films–but Kill List’s characters ultimately emerge as little more than an assemblage of barely held together traits.

The comparison to documentary filmmaking is instructive. With documentaries, the fracturing of reality through editing is counterbalanced by our faith that this reality, beyond the footage we see, is objectively solid and knowable. Wheatley’s films never establish this basic sense of trust. On paper, the stories he tells are far from illuminating. Instead, Wheatley falsely assumes that the fracturing of reality will sufficiently represent the moral and interpersonal confusion at the core of his films, and he conceives of coherence and detail as obstacles to insight. In Wheatley’s films, this approach tends to collapse under the weight of a fictive universe, left far too vague and superficial to make us believe that it exists beyond what we are invited to see. Kill List particularly bears the seams of its construction to an inordinate degree, drawing our attention to its fundamental unreality and dulling its impact.

One scene in particular is worth examining. After killing the first of three targets, Jay and Gal track the second to a storage unit. Looking inside, they discover a substantial amount of pornography and what we are led to believe is snuff footage. It’s impossible to say what exactly Jay and Gal glimpse on the video screen; we see them watching this footage but never actually see it for ourselves, hearing only a woman’s tortured screams. That we don’t see this footage is hardly surprising: everything up to this point in the film suggests that Wheatley will not, and in a way cannot, show us even a glimpse of it. Nor would showing it necessarily have added anything to the film aesthetically, though it’s worth pointing out that Nimród Antal’s 2007 horror film Vacancy expertly incorporated simulated snuff footage for a potent and terrifying effect.

Instead, what’s most distracting about this moment is precisely our knowledge that Wheatley cannot and will not show us anything. This points to fundamental design flaws: we feel relatively safe watching this film, which wastes its potential to horrify, because we ultimately know that there’s nothing there on the other side of the image. If we could hypothetically enter through the screen and stand next to Jay and Gal, we would take a look at the screen and see nothing on it because the footage simply doesn’t exist. In exposing the film’s constructedness, this moment is a potential liability. Compare Kill List to a film like Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom by Pier Paolo Pasolini, which terrifies even through word of mouth. Pasolini’s film is horrifying not necessarily because we believe anything we are seeing is real but because we sense a reality beyond its images. Momentarily, the fictive images blur with the reality they depict and we catch a glimpse of its hellish world that we cannot shake no matter how much we convince ourselves of its unreality.

This sense of genuinely disturbing horror never materializes in Kill List. In fact, a few scenes that feature graphic and gratuitous violence against animals feel like overextended attempts to shock the viewer. But there’s a world of difference between the repulsion we feel here and what we feel while watching Salò. We wisely choose to step back from the film’s hollow shocks, and nothing lingers after we put distance between ourselves and Kill List. Arguably, the only way for a film to truly disturb is in persuading us to temporarily believe in its reality, but Wheatley’s pretensions to verisimilitude notwithstanding, Kill List is absurdly unconvincing, a fact which has nothing to do its incorporation of the occult. The film picks up in the last third, ironically as it plunges closer to unreality, but despite a few admittedly virtuoso sequences, most notably a genuinely kinetic tunnel battle, the film ends with a twist so obviously telegraphed that any impact is irredeemably lost. Kill List is ultimately flawed by its tamed sense of intimidation, which makes it so easy for viewers to turn and walk away.

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