Ben Wheatley managed to evade the sophomore slump for the first two thirds of his second feature film. What starts off as a riveting and clever working class hitman story quickly devolves into Eyes Wide Wickershit. Yet, it’s clear that Ben Wheatley made the film he meant to make. I realize that’s one of those film critic phrases that smacks of bullshit, but hear me out. There are any number of filmmakers who clearly let the script and story get away from them and create something that’s logically flawed or in the wrong direction of their intent. With Kill List, while random and somewhat ludicrous, the ending clearly progresses out of what Wheatley was intending with the story. It’s just kind of unsatisfying. And really, really, really fucking bizarre. You kind of want Wheatley to stick with what he started with, a sort of blue-collar clockpuncher, in both senses of the word. But that’s not to be the case, and so while Ben Wheatley made the film he wanted, I kinda wished he didn’t.
Ben Wheatley has this sort of brilliant manner in taking the criminal underworld and making it purely naturalistic. He did it magnificently with Down Terrace and continues to do so in the opening bits of Kill List. Jay (Neil Maskell) is struggling in the down economy to find work, and things are lean. He’s trying to keep his family cared for, but it’s difficult, and there’s just no work. At a dinner party, his buddy Gal (Michael Smiley, Tyres the raver bike messenger in “Spaced”) hints at the possibility of available work if Jay’s interested. It’s a tough job, but he thinks the two of them can handle it. It’s all done casually, and then as we slide into the second part of the film, this is when we realize that Jay and Gal are hitmen, and they begin whacking everyone on their kill list. It’s gruesome, vicious and straightforward, done up like two contractors hammering in nails or setting up drywall. Wheatley is brutally effective at effortlessly crafting the subtle worlds of his working class cleaners — it’s what made Down Terrace so infinitely watchable. It’s two friends helping each other through tough times by getting the job done. The job just happens to be murdering people.
With my snide remarks, I’ve managed to spoil the film by referring to it as Eyes Wide Wickershit. So I do apologize. But it’s so disturbingly erratic. Tracing back through the setup, the film clearly sets up signposts to lead up to the insane finale. Wheatley totally fooled me. And it’s not being fooled that upset me. It’s just that I was so enjoying this almost naturalistic and casual manner in which he established the world of these two hitmen that for it to take an almost opulently baroque twist seemed disappointing. I was really enjoying the ride up until we took the turn to Crazy Town. And it’s mostly because Wheatley — with help from co-writer Amy Jump — is so excellent at making everything seem realistic and gritty. I wanted Straw Dogs and I got The Wicker Man. It felt like watching an episode of the first few seasons of “The Sopranos” and waking up during “Carnivale.” But while I didn’t care for what he did with it, I think Kill List merits a second watch. It’s a decent film, and shows Wheatley’s strengths as a filmmaker. He’s unflinching in his violence and style. I just think he went a little off the rails on this latest effort.
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