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SXSW Review: ‘Kill List’ Is A Blood-Drenched Trip Down The Rabbit Hole

By  · Published on February 3rd, 2012

Editor’s note: This review was originally published as part of our SXSW 2011 coverage on March 15, 2011. But, just like another stand-out horror flick from that festival (look down!), we’re bumping this baby back up to remind all of you dear readers that the film is finally hitting limited theaters this Friday, February 3.

Some films send their characters to hell and back, but few do so with the genre-bending, mind-fucking intensity of Kill List. Equal parts drama, thriller, and horror, the movie takes both characters and viewers on a hellish descent down the bloody rabbit hole with stops along the way for mystery, murder, and flesh-busting madness.

Jay (Neil Maskell) has been out of work for eight months, and his wife Shel (MyAnna Buring) is not about to let him forget it. They fight constantly about finances pausing periodically to assure their young son that mommy and daddy still love each other before returning to the fray. Jay’s friend Gal (Michael Smiley) comes over for dinner along with his new girlfriend, Fiona (Emma Fryer), and the four spend a raucous night of laughs and alcohol punctuated with an ugly and awkward outburst between the feuding couple.

It should be noted that Jay’s past career was that of a hit-man, and when Gal offers him the opportunity to get back into the game he jumps at the chance. The two of them partner up on an assignment for a mysterious client who slowly doles out their targets one at a time. As the hits progress so does Jay’s increasing blood-lust and desire to inflict pain, and soon the act of killing becomes less of a job and more an act of sadistic righteousness.

Trust me when I say that you have never seen a hammer used as effectively, cruelly, and beautifully as you will here. Seriously, prepare to wince.

Writer/director Ben Wheatley’s follow-up to his blackly comic and violent debut, Down Terrace, is three films in one. And all three work in perfect unison. What starts as a domestic drama grows into a violent hit-man thriller before finally morphing into…something else. There’s no twist here, but the third act explodes into such pure, unrestrained madness that going into it blind is the preferred method of entry.

There are some laughs to be found between the two friends and a sweetness apparent between Jay and his son, but this is far from lightweight entertainment. Domestic clashes and increasingly messy murders are soon eclipsed by an insane third act that among other delights features a scene in a tunnel that rivals the best horror films for sheer tension and terror.

Wheatley’s script playfully places odd but brief bits throughout the film’s first two acts when everything else is relatively normal. Fiona visits the bathroom during the dinner party, removes a mirror from the wall, and carves a strange symbol onto the back before replacing it. One of targets on Jay’s hit list seems to recognize him with a smile before he’s shot dead while another tells him “thank you” after each bloody blow. Viewers are as in the dark as Jay himself, but the answers are right around the corner. By way of that terrifying tunnel and some freaky woods…

In addition to the darkly intentional script and atmospheric direction the movie’s success is due in large part to the two lead performances. Maskell moves flawlessly from a man forced to endure verbal emasculation by his wife to someone who rediscovers the lost joy of mutilation and torture. (The journey between them isn’t as long of one as you’d think.) He also finds humanity in his character through several scenes with his son. Smiley is also quite good and provides most of the film’s limited humor through his warmth and wit.

Kill List is sure to lose some folks in the ambitious and surprising home stretch, but if you stay with it and place your trust in Wheatley’s blood-stained hands the reward is a twisted ride towards some intense and unsettling entertainment.

The Upside: Fantastic structure; strong performances; script weaves small mysteries throughout first two-thirds before everything goes to hell (in a good way (for the viewers, not the characters)); musical score ratchets up the tension.

The Downside: May be too ambiguous at times for some viewers; a certain familiarity

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.