Warning: structural spoilers ahoy.
Eight months after a job went wrong and left professional killer Jay (Neil Maskell) a depressed wreck (though it's not hard to suspect he already was a total mess before that event), money has finally run out. The marriage to his wife Shel (MyAnna Buring) - with whom he also has a child (Harry Simpson) - is going down the drain too, for Shel can't cope with Jay's breakdown nor the lack of money, nor Jay's pretending nothing at all to be wrong too well. So it comes as something of a relief to her when Jay's old partner Gal (Michael Smiley) and his new girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer) come to dinner and Gal offers Jay to partner up for a lucrative job.
It's a job in the UK, which won't keep Jay too long away from home, there's only a kill list of three and pretty big money in it, so the offer looks like a nice step back into the working life, such as it is.
Once the pair of killers gets the job started, their usual routine is broken by weird little occurrences that hint at something more complex, and much more terrible, than just bad people killing even worse ones. Why, for example, do the victims thank Jay? Sooner or later, the killers and the audience will find out. Not surprisingly, not everyone will like what he finds.
Despite having read some very positive reviews, I went into Ben Wheatley's Kill List with a certain degree of trepidation. Films built on a third act twist often tend to annoy me, and a third act twist whose existence I already know about is generally even less effective. However, Kill List isn't at all constructed like one of those twist-based films I expected. In fact, the characters' final doom is preordained nearly from the first shot, with clear moments of foreshadowing only the least attentive (like the IMDB commenters who seem to think the film "changes genres" about two thirds in) won't recognize as such. For my eyes, Kill List is constructed with a viewer who does by and large understand what's going on in mind. Wheatley's film tries and (at least in my case) very much succeeds at building a feeling of dread based on its audience's expectation of its story's outcome for its characters, building a mood of an inevitable doom that is disquieting and unnerving, and just a little bit cruel.
Speaking of cruelty, it is as surprising as it is impressive how nasty the film actually dares to get without feeling the need to be impressed by its own naughtiness, which is the thing (well, that and the horrible scripts) that, for example, ruined the Human Centipede films for me. There's nothing that makes a film less disturbing than when it shouts "Look how disturbing I am!" at you, so I'm glad Wheatley's film doesn't step into that trap.
Stylistically, Kill List is a clear successor of the UK's "social realism" school of filmmaking, with a love for mumbled dialogue (in part improvised, going by the credits) and shots that look much less artlessly constructed than they actually are. Usually, this style isn't my cup of tea at all, but in Kill List's case, the friction between the type of story a film shot in this style is normally allowed to tell and the story it actually is telling is just one element more that makes the film so brilliant at achieving its unnerving effect.
And unnerving Kill List truly turned out to be for me. Obviously, I'm someone who watches a lot of horror movies, but I'm generally only really disturbed or emotionally bothered by a handful of films per year. Kill List clearly belongs to this special group of films, the sort of movie that lingers in my mind, not exactly as something I'm afraid of, but as something I know I will carry with me for quite some time. In truth, I'm not quite sure I'll sleep all that well tonight - a (perhaps dubious) compliment for Wheatley's film. Clearly, this doesn't mean the film will have that kind of effect on everyone, for we all have different things bound to disturb our dreams; it is, however, not an achievement that should ever go unmentioned.