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Kill List: 2011 AFI Film Fest

By Ryan Mason · November 8, 2011

It’s rare for me to say that I’ve never seen a movie quite like this. But that’s the case with Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, a genre-bending heart attack-inducer that will leave you rattled long after you’ve left the theater.

I was completely unprepared for this. Based on a quick glance at the synopsis, it seemed to be about a slightly overweight, middle-aged, former soldier suburbanite husband and father who goes back to the nasty business of murder-for-hire because he’s out of money and needs to provide for his family. We’ve all seen plenty of hit man movies. We know the genre, we know generally what to expect. Since the plots tend to be formulaic, it’s the characters that make the memorable entries successful. And while not technically a hit man but in the same vein, I expected something like The American. Well, I’ll tell you right now that you have no idea what to expect. Not a clue. And the less you know about it, the better. Suffice it to say that this isn’t really a hit man movie at all. I mean, it is, but it’s not conforming to any you’ve seen before.

Wheatley has crafted a exhausting, visceral, graphic film that expertly weaves finely detailed characters with an escalating plot, to the point where you don’t realize just how attached to the characters you are until they’re placed in the most dangerous situations. And even then, you only realize just how extreme things have become once Wheatley gives you a slight breather and you notice that your white-knuckle grasp on your armrest has left indentations in the soft material. It’s a testament to Wheatley and his co-writer Amy Jump that, while there are plenty of moments that make you go, “What?” – including even now a day after seeing the film – Kill List never loses you. It never ventures too far into the madness so as to make you check out. You’re invested, completely, throughout the entire exhilarating ride from its brash opening in the middle of a verbal fight between Jay (Neil Maskell) and his wife, Shel (MyAnna Buring), to the final shocking moments as it cuts to black.

Wheatley gets much of the credit for the film’s success as the screenwriter and director, but it’s the cast that sells this. Only by these dominating performances by Maskell, Buring, and – playing Jay’s best friend-slash-fellow-hit-man, Gal – Michael Smiley, does Kill List go from being bizarre to thoroughly captivating; gut-wrenching. The only other time that I was nearly as blown away by a film this year was when I sat down for Drive. Fitting then that Kill List seems like what you’d get if Nicolas Winding Refn did a re-imagining of The Wicker Man.

Wrap your head around that if you can. Actually, don’t. Just go see Kill List: a fresh, unflinching piece of cinema that blasts traditional conventions of the genre through the window. And one of the best of 2011.