Having thought about the movie for a couple weeks (it may be more accurate to say I’ve been unable not to think about it), I’ve come to admire it a good deal. Its nauseating violence now strikes me as purposeful, even necessary. Like Gaspar Noé’s 1998 I Stand Alone—the movie it reminds me of most—Kill List uses its horrifying imagery as part of a larger political provocation. If you have a strong stomach, I’d recommend attending one of the final shows at the Music Box tonight. Some further considerations—along with spoilers—follow the jump.
The movie follows Jay (Neil Maskell) and Gal (Michael Smiley), two former soldiers now working as hit men in England. Desperate for a job, they take a three-victim contract from a mysterious old man who refuses to disclose important details. Wheatly divides the story into a prologue and three chapters (each named after the profession of one of the victims), beginning with an atmosphere of strict realism and gradually introducing fantastical elements until the film reaches a plane of near abstraction. It seems worth noting that the violence becomes more gruesome as the story becomes more allegorical.
This progression allows Wheatly to cleverly manipulate audience sympathy as well as narrative form. The movie’s first extended sequence—probably its single most successful passage—plays on tropes of kitchen-sink realism to make us sympathize with Jay and Sam while hinting at the barbarism they’re capable of. It depicts an unpleasant get-together between the two men and their significant others, a long night that climaxes with an argument between Jay and his wife that nearly comes to blows. Wheatly and his actors carve out an impressive dramatic shape here, lunging from moments of reckless energy to violent anger to drunken reconciliation. The sequence places the characters in a familiar humanist tradition (think Arthur Miller’s The View From the Bridge), suggesting that beneath their lack of sophistication lies genuine feeling.
But like I Stand Alone, Kill List lays to waste any humanist interpretation—which may help to explain why I was so offended by it at first. Despite the fact that Jay wants to be a good father and Gal shows sympathy for devout Christians, there’s ultimately nothing that redeems these men. Their “talents” for torture and murder prove to be mere sadism, and they appear to have no remorse for killing anybody (in a Pinteresque touch, they sometimes allude, blithely, to committing unspecified war crimes in Kiev). The men are modern mercenaries: even their suburban lifestyles—which the observant production design stuffs with useless upper-middle-class trinkets—reflect unthinking greed.
These revelations come to overwhelm the film after its second murder sequence, one of the most repellent I’ve ever seen in a movie. The target in this scene is a middle-aged librarian who’s been making snuff films with child victims. His crimes are almost hyperbolically debased (combining pedophilia, murder, and profiteering from atrocity), yet Wheatly presents his murder in such excruciating detail that one comes to pity him. From here on out, Kill List is almost unwatchably brutal, with the dialogue scenes providing little respite from the constant feeling of dread (Wheatly has hinted at this feeling for some time, in fact, with the movie's largely atonal score and start-stop dramatic rhythm; it's only after the violence really takes off that we realize it could have erupted at any time). It's a powerful rebuke to most vigilante movies, which portray violent revenge as exciting, cathartic, and morally uncomplicated. And it's a rebuke that needs to be made, considering how closely the genre mirrors recent U.S. and UK military policy: the Bush administration’s defense of torture in interrogating terror suspects, the Obama administration’s assertion that the U.S. should be allowed to assassinate suspected terrorists without even charging them.
And yet the film’s antimilitary sentiment extends beyond simple revulsion. It’s worth noting that Gal and Jay are capable of controlling their barbarism (such is the revelation of the long dinner-party sequence) and that they're encouraged to unleash it by the people around them. Those people would include not only the men’s employer, who spurs them to violence for his private gain (perhaps it is appropriate to call Kill List an “exploitation film”), but their significant others, and even their victims. In a curious turn, Gal and Jay’s first two hits thank the men for their brave work before dying. As I read it, these men represent promilitary factions of society that are so enamored with imperial might that they fail to recognize how it’s degraded our entire culture.
The third and final victim of Kill List is a member of Parliament. In the movie's most outlandish twist, he's revealed to be the leader of a death-worshipping pagan cult. The film’s last 15 minutes reverse the viewer’s sympathies yet again, as the hit men now run for their lives from an army of cultists who want to avenge their murdered leader. What’s Wheatly getting at here? That U.S.-UK military policy has been so overtaken by brutality that it no longer makes any rational sense? I can’t say for certain, and I don’t have the nerve to revisit this movie any time soon. But it’s clear from the final moments of Kill List that it’s neither the politicians nor the victims but the soldiers who are the first to sacrifice their humanity when atrocity becomes an acceptable part of life.