Kill List: movie review (+trailer)

British thriller 'Kill List' is not for the squeamish as the ‘surprises’ keep coming.

IFC Films/AP
Michael Smiley is shown in a scene from 'Kill List.'
IFC Films/AP
MyAnna Buring is shown in a scene from 'Kill List.'

Jay (Neil Maskell) and Shel (MyAnna Buring) are an average working/middle-class couple. As they chat with their dinner guests – Jay’s former co-worker Gal (Michael Smiley) and his new girlfriend, Fiona (Emma Fryer) – conflicts begin to surface. 

The economy is rotten – tell me something I didn’t already know – and Jay has been out of work for eight months. Little squabbles and discomforts – Jay’s irritation at Shel for serving the gravy in a Pyrex measuring cup, for instance – escalate until Jay throws a tantrum. 

At this point, if you’ve managed to avoid trailers and reviews, you might be expecting a realistic family drama. And you would soon find out you were wrong when it’s revealed that Jay’s and Gal’s “work” is killing for hire. Yes, the unemployment crisis affects even hitmen, who, to make things worse, don’t have health insurance or retirement accounts. 

Gal has lined up a three-hit assignment, which Jay reluctantly agrees to. Their creepy client (Struan Rodger) looks like a decaying, madhouse version of Joe Biden. (For that matter, if you can envision Ricky Gervais and Geoffrey Rush as killers, you’ve got a good picture of Jay and Gal.) 

They use no fancy plans or high-tech equipment. They’re down-to-earth working stiffs (who leave behind them a trail of nonworking stiffs). They do the job as carefully and efficiently as possible, save the constant threat of Jay’s nearly psychopathic anger-management issues. 

But the early genre shift doesn’t prepare you for the even larger third-act whammy (which we will remain vague about, to avoid spoiling it). For a second, you wonder if the reels are out of order or the cast of a different movie has stumbled in from the soundstage next door. The surprise doesn’t quite come out of nowhere: In fact, it reveals itself as hints in a number of earlier baffling moments. (Why is Fiona messing with the mirror? What happened to that rabbit?) 

For much of this second film from British writer/director Ben Wheatley (“Down Terrace”), the style seems tightly, even coldly, controlled, as it knocks things further and further out of whack. 

The coldness is intensified by the sparse, mostly amelodic electronic soundtrack. But then Wheatley either cleverly blindsides us or takes leave of his senses. English critic Kim Newman pretty much nails “Kill List” as “Get Carter,” rewritten by Harold Pinter and then by Dennis (no apparent relation) Wheatley. (I wish I had said that.) 

Despite its many fine qualities, a warning to the squeamish is necessary: I’m not generally squeamish, and I had to cover my eyes during one or two ultraviolent moments. Grade: A- (Rated R for graphic nudty, brutal violence, strong language, drinking and smoking.)

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