(WARNING: SOME SPOILERS) Ben Wheatley appears to have swiftly become the new poster boy for British horror, thus supplanting the undeservedly crowned regent Neil Marshall. Obviously, Wheatley has a far more suitable name so that’s something. And, at first glance, he appears to have artistic aspirations higher than the swathe of gore Marshall is content to cut a path through. But for every area where I admired Wheatley’s inventiveness and craft in Kill List, ultimately he left me feeling dissatisfied with the result.
It's possible that I'm just not sufficiently on board with horror movie tropes. It’s never been my preferred genre, and the further the dial swings from suggestive to splatterific the less engaged I become. At least, usually, you can see the signs a mile off in terms of content. Kill List has the air of arthouse to it, a film not obviously wearing its genre on its sleeve. As a result, by the time I reached the climax, with its "What's the most shocking reveal I can put in here?" the whole enterprise transformed into one that is distractingly manipulative and calculated (and, by that point, sadly inevitable). Maybe part of this disappointment results from the lo-fi "Ken Loach horror" suggestiveness of the opening sections leading me to expect something more subtle and sinister.
In retrospect, it just seems that Wheatley employs a wall-to-wall foreboding soundtrack for these scenes of domestic strife with same lack of restraint seen in the ending. Jay (Neil Maskill), unemployed for eight months, is getting grief from his wife Shel (MyAnna Buring). He is reluctant to return to his role as a hitman (which he took on after leaving the army) but his friend Gal (Michael Smiley) persuades him. But why is Gal’s girlfriend Fiona carving an occult symbol on the back of Jay's bathroom mirror and secreting a tissue containing Jay’s blood upon her person? Before long the job begins, but grows more and more disturbing, including the discovery of horrific activities by some of the targets, a peculiar resignation to their fates, and the apparent recognition of Jay by one of them. Deciding to quit, they discover that it is not so simple.
So many aspects appear to be inspired by the likes of Rosemary's Baby and The Wicker Man (and various other British horror fare, including Blood on Satan’s Claw) but instead of their ambiguous unease Wheatley finally succumbs to rubbery intestines, machine guns and OTT Satan worship; the pursuing hordes presumably sound like something out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers for no other reason than Wheatley though it would be cool. It’s quite apparent that, tonally, Wheately is setting audiences up for the more disorientating third act tone, but the lack of restraint on display and his succumbing to hackneyed plot devices (the retreat to an isolated location) suggest it does all comes down to the “splatter effect” pay-off (I should have seen the warning signs with the hammer incident, however).
Which is fine, except that Wheatley has sold the illusion that the film might be about something. What you realise is that he doesn’t really care about his characters (which, ironically, diminishes the impact of the ending); it becomes all about how clever and tricky the narrative construction is. Smiley makes Jay affable, but Maskell isn’t so far removed from his zombified hit man in Utopia (is he getting typecast?) There’s no resonance here other than the most superficial (which neatly reflects the all-pervading soundtrack). All the choices are, ultimately, very mannered and studied, from the verité handheld camera (all the better to make you feel like you’re there… but haven’t we seen that so an awful lot lately?) and drab – but cinemascope; this is an epic mundane landscape remember - cinematography to the use of title cards announcing the next victim.
I probably sound like I’m coming down hard on the film, which is no doubt a consequence of the excessive hype its received. There’s much here that is effective. Maskell and Smiley give outstanding performances, and there's a sense of easy-going chemistry and natural improvisation to their run-of-the-mill hit man duties. Individual elements of the sinister surround make you sit up and take notice (the initial carving on the back of the mirror, the encounter with the “doctor” – I half expected Jay to sprout hair from his cut hand!). In the end, though, the most creative elements aren’t enough to overcome the more derivative and exploitative ones.