Dir. Ben Wheatley
Film #7, of Sunday 7th October, for Halloween 31 For 31
[Note – This review does have a spoiler for one major plot aspect to the film. It does not spoil the whole film and its ending, but if you want to go into it without any prior knowledge except the basics, be wary.]
Writing a review only a few hours, or the next morning, after seeing a film is something I hesitate on. Before this project, I would gestate opinions and reviews over a few days, maybe even a week after with one of them posted onto this blog. I feel to grasp even schlock you need time to ponder, especially if it troubles you in what you thought of it. In the last week this rule has had to dropped to keep up with this monthly project. Bear in mind that with this review especially that the films for this monthly special were gestated from a very short time span, reflected as true first viewings being recorded down unless the film was a rewatch I included in. I may rewatch this subject of this review one day, which may lead to the same opinion, or a different one in either direction of critique.Also bear in mind though that I have also taken procrastination to an Olympic level sport. Keeping on my toes helps keep the mind active and avoid complacency...
Crossing together different genres of film, Wheatley’s acclaimed film follows an ex-soldier Jay (Neil Maskell) who works as a paid hitman with his partner Gal (Michael Smiley). His marriage with his wife (MyAnna Buring) is in a difficult, down-spiral of arguments, and when he is encouraged by Gal to work on his first assignment in a long period, they find that the targets are not what they seem.
In the beginning Kill List sticks out for how unconventional it is to the horror genre it is inextricably attached to but eventually becomes as it goes along. With the constant arguments between Jay and his wife, their son overhearing them in his own little world, the film sets off well as a fascinating character drama, based on real life scenes of horror of a breaking relationship, that made me hope that it would continue this thread onwards directly into the horror film I heard about in reviews in a unique way. That it takes the concept of the hitman in such an innocuous place at first - fitting into my comments in the Bad Taste review of all things about how we the British use the innocuousness of our culture to portray such unconventional things, in this case stock characters from a crime thriller – and is filtered through scenes of character dialogue that was improvised by the case as well as part of the script, catches you off-guard. I have to credit Ben Wheatley and co-writer Amy Jump for this attempt to meld the ordinary with the fantastic in such a broth of ideas. As it moves onwards into its main plot thread, it gives a lot of promise too. Knowing about the drastic shift in the final quarter, the referencing of religion in the first half, starting at a dinner party with Gal and his female lover when Gal suggests saying Grace at the dinner table and prompts a discussion about it, suggested a different take on morality similar to how the film Kill List directly references in the final scenes took the idea of religion and it’s struggles in a real world further than even most ‘serious’ dramas. (I won’t reveal that older film’s name – it’ll spoil Kill List by evoking intentionally similar images.)
Unfortunately the film started to lose interest for me in the middle. First, despite my admiration with Wheatley for the unconventional plotting, he does run through so many clichés of how films are put together, in the editing, putting together of audio and the visuals, the use of the camera, and the structure of the film. The obvious example of this is the amount of montages of short second transitions, set to sombre music, to represent the passing time or the emotional state of the characters; this technique can be used perfectly, but it has been used in so many other films I have seen without real success that it needs to be retired for a long time unless someone can use it in a way that is incredibly effective. At the first the ‘realistic’ style of scenes, common in both a lot of films now and television, works for the character dialogue in the first quarter, but eventually I kept thinking about how much I have seen similar cinematic techniques, even if I cannot give concrete descriptions of them, in so many other things, including British cinema, that it deals Kill List a disfavour by sucking it into a cloned cinematic style ill-befitting it. The repetitiveness is matched by the fact, and sadly with the case with Kill List too, that even though these constantly replicated and modified styles of cinema common nowadays – a digital camera replicated realism heavy on moderate paced, non-abstract editing to convey emotions and a lot of close-up, back-and-forth editing of dialogue scenes – can create striking moments that you can take out of context as screenshots, they aren’t actually that good cinematically for me either, the oversaturation of familiar flourishes from watching films constantly causing me, just by instinct without fully being able to articulate it, to find them off-putting and not able to visually and audibly draw emotion from me or immerse you into the ideas, emotions or plot of the films. For the few moments that stand out visually, or to drive the story, they seem suffocated in a style of filmmaking limiting for a filmmaker who could bring as much experimentation with it if his blending of genres in the script, at first, with his co-writer is as interesting as it is.
Then, secondly, and bear in mind my words about how this is a very fresh viewing of the film, the script does falters in the middle and is never able to pick itself up again close to the well created beginning. The problems start when the hitmen discover their second target, a librarian, is helping in the distribution of child pornography, an uncomfortable concept, another, worse real world horror if you strip away how tabloid newspapers and the media have distorted the idea away from the sickening reality, but one that ends up being used in a cheap way to push the film into a blackened mood and the character dynamics rather than tackle actually serious ideas of morality the film promised in the beginning. I was reminded of the 2008 Australian film The Horseman which had a loaded concept as its whole plot – a father taking revenge on pornographers who took advantage of his drugged addicted daughter, by filming her in a porn video in a state unable to agree with the participation, and letting her die of the consequences of narcotics – which causes you to want to (out of primal and moral rage) be on his side but, when faced with scenes of horrible torture as bad as the actions of the villains and with the aesthetic of a Saw franchise sequence, within a film that tries to be a serious drama but clearly is a genre film with actors acting out a horrible real life concept, trivialises the concept worse than a lurid rape-revenge film like Savage Streets (1984) tenfold. Kill List makes a worst mistake with its plot point in that, through the same mistakes, it trivialises paedophilia in a way that is unsettling. Even if all of us, including myself, would desire, and find difficulty to hold back, the punishing actions to main and maybe kill someone dealing with child pornography or a child molester, a serious minded film like this that portrays such a concept in an arbitrary way with graphic justice involving a hammer, in full view, just comes off as incredibly dubious, especially when before this the film had a perfect balance in the genre film it was leading into and its drama. After this point the script started to unravel quickly for me out of frustration, becoming a mixed bag of scenes disrupted by this massive mistake in plotting and the lack of tight construction compared to the first half. The abrupt transition in the last parts does make sense on paper and would have been inspired, set up multiple times in the first half and, if it had been done well, would have be a provocative swerve in which the whole film is a full circle surrounding Jay and his morality being punched further and further into oblivion by the chapters, tangential at first, that set the end up. Because the film collapses in the middle and cannot recover itself though, this set-up is undermined, making the sudden change in genre feel out-of-place despite the subtle establishments beforehand.
It is almost physically painful to write this critical review, disappointed something that, unless my views drastically change in a few years if I ever rewatch Kill List, started off promisingly sabotaged itself, and it’s impossible to find fun in writing the first bad review for these 31 days. Considering the reviews praising this out there, I may be in the minority, but it feels more saddening than the words of a simple contrarian. As said in the first review of the October project, I want to support my country of Britain’s cinema, but for every good or great one, there are many poor ones, and to my sadness many disappointments and failed potentials. Wheatley has the potential to get much better, leaving this review with a sliver of hope, considering his brave attempt to mesh so many different ideas into this film as he and his co-writer did. He needs to now however, taking into consideration that this is the first film of his I have seen, iron out the clichés and pitfalls in the script and direction in his films or, for me as an ordinary horror fan who just happens to use big words and phrases in his reviews, he is going to keep disappointing me with the same sorts of problems. His new film Sightseers (2012), a horror comedy drama, is about to be released and I wait with trepidation but also with a freshly wounded, but still hopeful optimism that he can improve immensely from the film I reviewed here.
Additional Note – Aside from the DVD cover, the other screenshots for this review are my first, crude attempts at capturing screenshots. I’m not completely confident with the technique yet, and need to find better software and/or learn a lot more about it, especially with the tricky problems it would have involving multi-region DVDs I would want to review but having to put up with my laptop DVD-drive being region-locked. Any comments on the quality of the image or advice, which I have thankfully had already as well at the weekend, would be received with delight.