New on DVD: Kill List (2011)

Kill List is one of the most haunting, compelling, and (at moments) repellant movies to come down the pike in some time.

One of the great strengths of the screenplay by director Ben Wheatley (a veteran of British TV) and Amy Jump is that it keeps us guessing about just what kind of movie it is.

For example, the first 20 minutes appear to be a domestic drama. Jay (Neil Maskell) is a British husband and father who has been out of work for eight months.

His pretty wife Shel (MyAnna Buring, one of the spelunkers in The Descent) is losing her patience. The bank accounts are empty. Their credit cards are being rejected. Whether the problem is depression or just laziness, she wants Jay to get off his duff.

Things come to a very ugly head when Jay’s old army buddy Gal (Michael Smiley) comes for dinner with his new girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer) and witness their host and hostess in a full scale china-smashing, food-tossing marital meltdown.

The second phase of the film reveals Jay and Gal to be an assassination team trained by the British military. Now they’re independent contractors. Shel, we realize, has always known how her husband puts bread on the table and urges him to get back in the game.

Jay and Gal take a contract to kill several individuals whose names, photos, addresses and activities are in a dossier given them by their well-dressed but ominous employers.

The targets on this kill list include a priest, a librarian, and a member of parliament.

Our boys don’t ask questions. They just go about methodically doing their job.

Except that Jay has a tendency to go overboard. Killing the targets isn’t enough for him. He goes positively Neanderthal (especially when he realizes that one of their targets makes torture porn). This dismays Gal, who finds such behavior not only unprofessional but dangerous.

Let’s just say the makers of Kill List way outdo the head-stomping elevator scene from Drive.

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Up to this point the film has been first a domestic drama and then a crime movie. In its last act, though, it moves into an entirely different realm. Imagine the characters from The Sopranos wandering into the cult horror movie The Wicker Man.

By all rights Kill List should be a schizophrenic mess. But so low-keyed is Wheatley’s direction, so tight the writing, and so superb the performances by the principal players that we buy into every twist and turn.

Maskell and Smiley’s work is particularly splendid, capturing the give and take of two old buddies who have endured some horrific experiences together and have found in each other an anchor elsewhere lacking in their lives.

Maskell brilliantly mines the psychosis roiling inside Jay, while Smiley creates in Gal a genuinely likable and sympathetic hit man. Buring is both sexy and steely as the wife trying to support her man through trying times; Fryer is effective as the girlfriend who will play a bigger role in all this than we can guess.

Particularly clever is the way Kill List refuses to spell everything out for us. The film is thick with suggestion, but tells us relatively little, making for an experience that is doubly unsettling.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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