Simple enough: the “Kill List” is a list of people that Jay (Neil Maskell) and Gal (Michael Smiley) are contracted to kill. But Ben Wheatley’s film is more psychological thriller than crime thriller, and arguably horror, and arguably very oblique war allegory.
The two men are veterans of one or other of the last decade’s wars in the Middle East. The long first act of the film is a long, realist look at their suburban life that plays like a high-class version of a British soap opera. Londoner Jay has a Swedish wife, Shel (MyAnna Buring), and a young son. He seems vaguely depressive, maybe just bored of doing not very much all day. He and Shel cycle through loud rows and quiet reconciliation. The wry Northern Irish Gal brings a new girlfriend (Emma Fryer) to a dinner at Jay and Shel’s home that is punctuated in the middle by a blazing shouting match between the hosts; Gal reassures and comforts their son while they fight.
Subject to their personalities, everyone is as normal as can be. The dialogue in particular is among the most naturalistic that I can remember. There is no rush whatsoever to get to the point where Jay and Gal get to business. We learn that the two former soldiers still work in violence, now as extralegal contract killers. Since the movie has gone to such lengths to establish the two men in familiar domestic-drama roles, there is nothing glamorous, exotic, or at first even interesting about the concept that this is how they earn money. This is a realist picture of working-class hit men. Their last job – “Kiev”, it is coded throughout – got messy in a way that we never learn, and Gal must talk Jay into ending his lethargy and getting back to work.
And so finally the kill list. They are travelling businessmen, checking into that quintessentially British kind of cheap, characterless hotel to scout and then murder their targets. The job, though, seems somehow off-kilter, and quite soon Jay’s professionalism starts to lapse as he is (quite understandably) unable to figure out exactly what is going on. He seems to now – after Kiev, maybe? – be a soldier who cannot kill without thinking, and because this job is a puzzle with little prospect of a logical solution, the thinking makes him volatile, and the volatility feeds on itself. Gal remains sensible, but he cannot restrain his friend.
The key to the effectiveness of the whole thing is the unorthodox and impeccable pacing. The excellent domestic realism of the first half plays very slowly, but when the acceleration starts it never stops. The best cut is to the title card at the end, when it is suddenly clear in hindsight that the pace has been increasing steadily and maniacally for quite a while. We are swept up like Jay in the maddening, nightmarish weirdness that would be absurd if it were less unsettling. It is nihilistic in the way a dream is nihilistic, and perhaps this is why Jay continues to kill through it all.
There is one key moment in which he and Gal try to extricate themselves from whatever it is that is happening and are clearly compelled to continue. At first I wondered if perhaps it wouldn’t have made more sense not to have this compulsion, since Jay at times seems unstoppable anyway. But it seems right that he retains his common sense, so that we can’t give him up as deranged. His world has become nightmarish, but he is tragically lucid, the victim of the horror, not the perpetrator.
The more time goes by since I saw “Kill List”, the better I think it was. This is because it is pretty clear that there are plenty of ways in which it doesn’t make any sense, and the temptation to poke at the flimsy logical fabric or to play plot hole games is strong. In retrospect, though, the tone resonates long after any arguments about what is or is not going on. Jay and Gal have to kill people they don’t understand on behalf of people they don’t meet for reasons they don’t know. Why should any of it make sense?