I was watching Mark Kermode videos on Youtube one day and I saw his top eleven movies of 2011 – wonderful, I thought, I should go and watch some of these. Some I’d already seen (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Senna, Le Quattro Volte, We Need To Talk About Kevin), and another was Kill List, a low budget Yorkshire-made horror flick that I felt some misguided semi-loyalty towards, having lived in Leeds in an earlier chapter and with a passing acquaintance to Screen Yorkshire. I still delete emails from them. Semi-loyalty, like I say. So I watched it. Spoilers follow.
In Kill List we meet Jay, a former soldier who is struggling to re-adjust to life at home with his pretty Swedish wife Shel and their young son. Money is getting tight and flare ups of temper and climbing tension characterise their home-life, so the prospect of a meal with his old friend and colleague Gal sounds like just the thing. At first things go well, Gal is a cheeky chappie and his date Fiona is quieter but charming, but Gal’s flirtation with Shel and Jay’s general frustration continue to bubble under the surface until he explodes at the table, throwing crockery around and storming out of the room. While Shel tries to smooth things over for the embarrassed Fiona, Gal suggests to Jay that he should get out of the house and come back to work with him – it seems that between soldiering and plate-breaking, Jay had some other career.
Let me stop there for a moment, because by the end of this meal I was feeling somewhat torn. Without being spectacular, Kill List was proving to be reasonably shot and edited, while the acting was generally kitchen-sink real rather than everything trying to be all Hollywood (which is one of the things about Brit- no, English TV and Film that always annoys me very badly). My problem was, specifically, the dinner conversation. The same cut-cut editing that had been revealing for us this fracturing life continued through the meal, but it just went on and on and on, and the little clips of chat we heard, while real, didn’t seem to actually be about anything, but on they went, and on. I started to wonder, at this relatively early stage in the film, how long I’d been watching it. It was longer than I would have expected. Or hoped.
Anyway, Shel and Gal talk Jay into accepting the job offer and at first it does him the world of good – but if it wasn’t already clear (from the title alone) that their line of business is off the straight and narrow, this is rapidly underlined by their meeting with Gal’s new client. A mysterious old man in a hotel room gives them thousands of pounds in used bills and a list of names – so Jay and Gal leave to start crossing them off. And it was more or less at this point, without any warning whatsoever, that the presentation of mundane northern English reality was interrupted by a black-screen message reading THE PRIEST in big white letters, shortly before Jay and Gal go off and kill one. All I can say is, I stared at it in dismay. Similar interruptions followed with THE LIBRARIAN and (I think) THE DOCTOR, in each case to a similar effect, and in each case Jay’s grip on himself progressively slips as a horrific justification for these murders is unveiled, and his violent nature begins to express itself more fully. Towards one more title card, and the finale.
Now, while there were still a few things to be admired in Kill List, as it continued I’d been vaguely wondering about the horror label that Mr. Kermode had hung around the film’s neck, since as you might guess so far it appeared to be a hit-man movie. There were already hints of a departure from an ordinary reality though. I watched it a little while ago and I could be confusing the time-line, but I think that it was in their first encounter with the mystery man that he just happened to slash Jay’s palm with a razor-sharp blade to seal the deal – certainly not the last moment of visceral nastiness, nor the worst – yet this wasn’t the first indication either, because during that evening meal scene the charming, quiet Fiona nipped into the bathroom, took the mirror off the wall, scratched a mysterious symbol onto the silver backing, and hung it up again.
This first act of branding certainly suggested something more off-kilter than merely the intimation of a bad history in Jay and Gal’s working relationship, but it also worried me slightly. It seemed arbitrary, apparently prompted by nothing more than Jay’s blow up at the table, made all the more so by Gal’s reveal that he hardly knew this girl he had brought to his friend’s house. Nevertheless, it seemed clear that at least Jay, and possibly his family, had been targeted in some way, and (oh yeah) finding their pet cat strung up outside the front door reinforced that. As did Fiona’s unexpected and increasingly frequent presence in Shel’s life while the two boys are off playing together.
However, when the mysterious client added his little blood ritual to the mix I worried more. There had to be an obvious connection between these two brandings, but for me there was a major logic gap in the order of events: Jay was being singled out for something before there was any reason to think he would be involved in what was to come, and the fact that Gal is clearly not involved in the building conspiracy made it all a bit too convenient for me. I could, theoretically, have accepted a supernatural influence, except what was suggested and what was to come were definitely more in the Wicker Man vein of horror, where there is no reason to believe that the island folk’s “truth” is anything but superstition, than say The Omen, where the genuinely otherworldly is at work.
So look. Despite the clumsy intrusion of Tarantino-esque title cards halfway through, there are still effective moments to come; the sense of increasing oppression works, even if the increasingly gory violence that matches it step for step is of course more unpleasant than unsettling. The dialogue on the other hand often fails, and when the credits rolled and the legend “written by X, and the cast” appeared I groaned at the realisation that this had probably been a fifty page script for a ninety minute film, and that scenes such as that interminable dinner had likely been wholly improvised, hence that strange atmosphere of reality and pointlessness they gave off. But those title cards.
Really, I can’t just discount the title cards. As Jay and Gal’s focus moves away from the targets and the reason for their termination onto exactly who has commissioned these killings, it becomes clear that Jay and Gal have been chosen for a reason as well – Jay at least, since Gal is more a means to an end. And that “reason”… that, it seems, comes down to the subject of the fourth title card. I won’t spoil it, but as soon as I saw it I knew what was coming. The Wicker Man pretensions being cultivated eventually come to fruition, or are overtly realised rather, although to compare the two films is to mortally wound Kill List, and not in an act of mercy. The series of unmaskings in the final seconds is to experience your most banal expectations satisfied as though they were revelations.
And then it ends. No explanation provided, no justification given. Maybe it is intended to be victorious minimalism, a sucker-punch followed by casual abandonment. The film provided its own applause.