Ben Wheatley's 2012 crime/horror hybrid Kill List earned enthusiastic praise from more than a few fans of extreme cinema, and no wonder. Focusing on a former grunt named Jay, it's alternately poignant and gut-punch graphic. See, Jay's family is on the rocks. He hasn't pulled down a paycheck for eight months, his joblessness owing primarily to a disastrous failed mission in Kiev. The strain has made him into a pressure cooker of a man, all seething with unfocused rage and ready to rupture. His wife wants to leave. His son skulks sourly about the house. And his best friend Gal thinks he needs professional help. Barring that, though, Gal offers him the next best thing: a job. Assassinate three targets for a mysterious client and make bank. Bing, bam, boom. Seems simple enough, right? Well, "seems" is the operative word, because the job soon becomes anything but. It's not that the targets are particularly troublesome. They're docile as lambs and even thank Jay before he murders them. Then there are the dead animals showing up around Jay's house, a cryptic symbol found on the paperwork of one victim, the way the client insists that Jay seal the contract with blood. It seems a very old organization has had Jay in its sights for ages ...
In one way, I can understand why critics and fans alike love Kill List. Wheatley handles the film's domestic and psychological drama with a deft hand, interspersing naturalistic shots of ferocious arguing with truly tender displays of affection, defaulting to subtlety rather than forever feeling the need to explain. And the violence, well, it's downright horrendous, every bit as stomach clenching as Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive. Unlike Refn, though, Wheatley obviously isn't in love with gore and grue. The camera doesn't shy away from horrible executions, but neither does it linger there. But Kill List has a more basic problem. It staggers over basic plot structure—and falls hard.
Let's see, how can we discuss this without resorting to spoilers? Suffice it to say that Wheatley divides his film up very deliberately. Each section opens with a splash screen showing the title of the target Jay is supposed to assassinate, stark white lettering splashed against a black backdrop. “The Priest.” “The Librarian.” “The MP.” As the story progresses, the strange group that hired Jay starts to increasingly intrude into the proceedings, and it shouldn't surprise anyone to learn that its members’ intentions aren't munificent. The hunter finally becomes the hunted, and right when you think things can’t get worse for Jay, a new splash screen appears: “The Hunchback.” Fighting by firelight, Jay is forced to go mano a mano with a masked, robed, knife-wielding adversary. When he finally triumphs and pulls away the blood-soaked clothing concealing the combatant’s identity, the revelation as to who his enemy actually was proves as earth shattering as a nine on the Richter. Viewers were stunned. “I have been unable to think about anything else since I watched it,” said Jake Ozga of Zero Credibility. But for many (myself included), rumination over that shocker of a conclusion soon turned sour. Why? According to the film’s internal narrative logic, there was no reason for The Hunchback to be there, no reason for that individual to fight Jay, no reason for the person not to cry out and thus end the confrontation even as it began. It’s a baffling narrative problem that brings an otherwise breakneck story to a screeching halt. When one interviewer noted the incongruity and commented how “Kill List begins to feel as though the events of the film are in [Jay’s] head, like he’s losing his mind,” Wheatley responded by saying, “It's a tricky one isn't it? The classic cop-out ending that it's all just a dream. We wanted to avoid that as much as possible. I'm not denying that this could be the case, of course [emphasis added], but I wanted it to be more direct.”
People have occasionally asked me why I like to bang on about literary theory, especially since it seems so removed from the stuff of actual storytelling. Well, consider Kill List to be Exhibit A in the case as to why your critical framework matters. When you run into a storytelling question that you can’t seem to answer, you don’t want an author to equivocate, to coyly offer possibilities, to deny any special authority over the proceedings. You want a word from on high. You want the difficulty explained. You want to know what happened. Some have argued that making meaning dependent on the reader is the humblest course of interpretive action. That’s well intentioned. Yet when the shroud is stripped away, it’s also anything but satisfying.
(Picture: CC 2012 by felixtsao)