I really liked this movie. Especially the way that it handles exposition—it doesn’t. We are dropped right into the world of these characters, told very little about them, and have to just go for the ride. We’re well into the first act before we figure out the premise: A former contract killer agrees to come out of retirement for one more job. On its face, it sounds like every other hit-man movie you’ve ever seen—which only belies the bizarre twists and turns that are to come.
I think the degree to which a person likes this movie will depend on how much they like to participate in the creative part of the movie-watching experience. Some movies spell everything out; other movies leave room to allow for the viewer to bring something of their own to the experience.
Recalling way back to my liberal arts education, I remember that the German Romanticists believed that the artist and the viewer were equals in the creative experience. In other words, the interpretation a viewer creates from experiencing a piece of art is an artistic endeavor equal to that of the artist who creates it in the first place.
So whenever we watch a movie, the question we must answer is how much effort do we want to put into “creating” the movie we’re watching? A movie like Kill List requires a LOT of effort, or at least a lot more than the average movie. On the other side of the spectrum are all the filmmakers that spoon-feed you exactly what to think (Oliver Stone, for example), and most Hollywood movies that over-explain and tie up every single loose end before the credits roll.
Unfortunately there are times when the combination of thick British accents and naturalistic dialogue (characters talking over each other, sometimes mumbling, etc.) make what is already a challenging narrative virtually impenetrable. I found myself rewinding to catch dialogue I missed. It’s a small criticism because those very same elements contribute much to the gritty and authentic feel of Kill List.
If you don’t want to risk spoilers, stop reading now. Otherwise…
Right from the start there’s something strange about these characters and the world they live in. The relationship between Jay and his wife, Shel, is volatile and violent, but oddly there seems to be a strong authentic connection between them as well. Had the movie stayed solely focused on them, I still would have been fascinated by it.
But the downward spiral from strange to total fucking bat-shit crazy is what really puts Kill List in the running for one of my favorites.
It was only when I noticed just how scared I was that I realized I was watching a horror movie, not just a thriller. The climactic action scene in the tunnels was a terrifying combination of claustrophobia and paranoia, a “zombie” attack by faceless homicidal cult members.
The one change I would make concerns the “surprise” ending. It wasn’t hard to guess who the hunchback was given the parallel sword-fight scene from earlier in the movie (plus having recently seen a similar twist at the end of A Serbian Film). I think it would have played better if the audience was let in on the hunchback’s identity before the fight, leaving Jay to be the one surprised. We could have felt the impending tragedy as the fight unfolded, which would be a stronger emotional payoff than that provided by the “twist.” But the good news is, those of us who like Kill List enough to watch it more than once can get that emotional payoff on repeated viewings, of which I plan to do many.