Thursday, January 5, 2012

Review: "Kill List" (2011)

There's a potentially fun take on the "one last job" hit man story that concludes Kill List, Ben Wheatley's buzzed about British thriller. Unfortunately, whatever heft Wheatley was aiming for gets lost in a frustratingly vague exercise in plot and character development. For all of the violence and attempts at a menacing atmosphere, Wheatley's film is too empty for its intense final stretch, and Kill List winds up feeling like a failure and a missed opportunity all at once.

Set in rural England, the film opens with Jay (Neil Maskell) and his Swedish wife Shel (MyAnna Buring) hosting a get together with Jay's friend Gal (Michael Smiley) and his new girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer). Over the course of the evening the two couples talk, Jay gets upset (I'd say why but understanding the accents is a bit of a pain here), they talk and drink some more. During a brief respite, however, Gal tells Jay (in the latter's garage) that he has word of a job assignment with a big payoff. The two embark on the job, but as they begin going after targets for their unsettling employers, they start to think there may be something more going on.

As stated before, the idea is solid, with tons of a potential. But even though the story intrigues just out of the sheer mystery of what's going on, the writing and execution are so poor that most of the film becomes a chore to sit through that's only intermittently compelling or tense. Though there's some mention of a job Jay and Gal pulled in Kiev, there's nothing to indicate what that job was or what it means to either of the men. It's just used as a plot point and an indicator of something personal that the mysterious employers somehow know about. Wheatley may be trying to play vague, but he ends up shooting himself in the foot. The central duo aren't remotely interesting, and the only interest there is in the plot relates to what's really going on, not either of their fates.

Worse, in place of any sort of substance or character, Wheatley tries to smother every scene with atmosphere, namely with Jim Williams' music. In a few spots the eerie strings and tones work, but it mostly comes off like a bunch of rejected tracks from There Will be Blood. Add to this a lot of ugly photography and the annoying tendency to use a few black frames for transitions, and it all adds up to a rather obnoxious viewing experience. Wheatley seems to want to blend authentic British kitchen sink-style crime with a hint of something wild and fanciful, but for every promising moment, there's so much that annoys. Without any sort of interesting characterization, coupled with the ridiculous vagueness of the whole piece, it's not worth sticking through. Or at least, it wouldn't be, if it weren't for the ending.

That's not to say that the final act is a huge improvement. Some things, like the lighting and editing, become far worse. But the finale is where Kill List seems like it has the most promise. It's brutal and horrifying, but also fascinating. Still, it's mired by all of the flaws present throughout the film as a whole, and no matter how interesting the idea is on paper, the execution simply isn't up to snuff. Its slide into utter madness and horror feels false, and the more I think about everything else, so does nearly everything in Kill List.

Grade: D

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