Perceived by many as a vile and veritably exploitative video nasty, Ben Wheatley’s Kill List is, beneath its repulsive veneer, a stark, sophisticated rejoinder to the gleefully relished moral turpitude of trendy crime-thriller chaff. The trouble is that its gonzo narrative machinations, alternately brutal and bizarre, transpire so rapidly and with so little advanced notice that its real agenda might not register the first time around; one leaves the film feeling disoriented and, in some cases, rather annoyed, which makes the purpose of its often grating operations hard to glean and its virtues even harder to appreciate. The effect is a bit like listening to noise music: Your immediate, visceral reaction to the abrasiveness of the aesthetic crashes up against an understanding of the context within which it’s created, and the friction generated by that opposition is central to its appeal. What’s perhaps most remarkable about Kill List is that, whether you think it’s a success or a failure, the actual act of watching it is almost guaranteed to provoke an extreme reaction: One typically feels overcome with either revulsion or awe, which, for good or ill, makes it one of the few films in recent memory with the capacity to genuinely shock. That it’s divisive seems a foregone conclusion.
What elevates Kill List above decidedly simplistic provocations like A Serbian Film or Tom Six’s Human Centipede films is the manner in which it confronts the desire for bloodshed on which the spectacle of its violence is predicated, a spectacle as ultimately discomfiting as it is increasingly explicit and cruel. Within hollower efforts (Saw, Hostel, et al.), an intention to “shock” becomes an end unto itself, a paltry goal for which each new death or dismemberment strives. Here, by contrast, acts which shock—there are several, one already infamous—are reduced to swift motions of cold, unnerving brutality, gazed upon with what amounts to a certain candor. When Jay (Neil Maskell), the recently retired hit man whose requisite “one last job” takes him and old friend Gal (Michael Smiley) on a violent road trip across Sheffield, lays his ball-peen to the skull of a wailing child pornographer, the battering is depicted in one galling, unbroken take, the point isn’t so much to prove that Wheatley can face the gore head-on as it is to prove that we’re culpable in the directness of the execution, implicating a bloodthirsty audience in the realization of a debased fantasy. Jay, of course, is underscored here as morally irredeemable, as much the “bad guy” as the real Bad Guys (his boss, a mysterious cult, the pornographers), but by then our conception of “good” and “bad” is rejected in favor of a sliding scale of moral relativism which exonerates nobody, ourselves included. Kill List locates our moral perspective’s vanishing point and sticks it in the dead-center of the film; what follows is a descent toward some immoral absolute. It’s terrifying.
Fear, mind you, is too nebulous and personal a reaction to gauge critically, but both times I watched Kill List—the first time this past January, at which point I abhorred it, and the second time last week, when its virtues finally clicked—I found long stretches of its final act tremendously unnerving, and in fact one scene (in which Jay and Gal are chased through a dark tunnel) frightened me more than any movie has in my adult life. Again, this is an entirely subjective response, and I’m certain that more hardened viewers than I will find it considerably less traumatizing. But the reaction was genuine and, I think, significant: The film provoked something in me, a response I assumed wasn’t possible given that horror films haven’t scared me in the least since early childhood. Perhaps Kill List retains the capacity to shock and dismay precisely because it undermines—or at least largely rejects—the conventions of the British horror tradition to which the iconography of its scares otherwise belong; what it shows us is scary because it’s been so thoroughly defamiliarized. The functional purpose of the process itself should be obvious: While it operates in the manner of a crime thriller, its violence already hews so close to horror that we’re practically begging for the latter genre to eclipse the former; when it finally does for real, we’re confronted with the suggestion that, whatever its style or tenor, violence is violence is violence. At the end of the day (or by the end of the film), hired executioners and ritual sacrifices amount to the same thing, and with the field properly leveled, horror films about cults and thrillers about hit men are superficially different but essentially identical sites of the same violent spectacle. In other words, we all bleed the same blood, or in this case ooze the same pulpy brain matter. That we share a desire to see it all hit the wall is sort of the point: The spectacle sucks, but we keep ordering it.
Kill List's pleasures are largely visceral, so it should come as no surprise that a high-quality transfer improves the experience of watching the film considerably. IFC, clearly regarding Wheatley's debut as a kind of jewel in their distribution crown, has consequently spared no expense, preparing a nearly flawless Blu-ray. The AVC-encoded 1080p transfer is outstanding, delivering rich, well-balanced colors with above-average sharpness and clarity. Crisp, clear outdoor scenes look positively pristine, and the film's many nighttime sequences handle shadows and black levels exceptionally well. Early scenes have a glossy digital sheen that (presumably deliberately) betrays their subject's middle-class complacency, setting us up formally as well as thematically for their imminent descent into a criminal underworld several degrees darker (a shift the transfer handles very well indeed).
The transfer's DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio soundtrack is no slouch either, whether piping in the film's rich, bass-heavy score (an atmospheric boon, to be sure) or keeping its clipped, often rather shrill dialogue clear and muddle-free (which, given the thickness of the accents, certainly makes it easier to follow line for line). This is purely speculative, but it seemed as though the film was actually becoming gradually louder as the film chugged forward, which would cohere with the general thrust of its narrative—but in any case, by the time the tunnel chase rolls around, you might feel it necessary to turn down the stereo several notches lest you be handed a noise violation or eviction notice. That said, this is a film that demands to be played loud; the soundtrack, robust and eventually booming, registers best if you can feel it in the gut.
Though part of Kill List's appeal lies in its textual ambiguity, MPI Media Group has done a bang-up job providing robust contextual information for the needy and curious, loading this Blu-ray with lengthy, helpful insight into the film's narrative and thematic machinations. Two separate commentary tracks, the first and best with director Ben Wheatley and co-writer Amy Jump and the second with actors Neil Maskell, MyAnna Buring, and Michael Smiley, bring some of the film's more obscure passages into better focus, while a slew of formal interviews with the filmmakers, actors, and producers help illuminate the extent of the work that went into developing the project (Wheatley, for his part, comes across as surprisingly earnest and well-intentioned, which isn't quite what one expects after watching his film). Two brief featurettes—one a raw making-of featuring camera tests and other paraphernalia and the other a simplistic composite of the aforementioned interviews and footage from the film's trailer—round out the package.
A confounding, divisive, but ultimately staggering vision, Ben Wheatley's genre-melding Kill List gets a sterling Blu-ray transfer from MPI.