Kill List (2011): Keeping Death in the Family

Written by husband/wife team Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump and directed by Wheatley, Kill List is a tour de force of dark unsettling images and sounds. From the very first frame, the film disturbs the viewer. Despite a fair sprinkling of black humour, an overpowering feeling of evil and doom fill every moment of the film.

Neil Maskell is Jay, an ex-soldier who has become partners with his old army buddy Gal (Michael Smiley) together they work as hitmen. Jay’s wife shel (Myanna Burning) is also part of the business, setting up contacts and contracts. She also sorts out lodgings for the lads when they are on a job.

At the beginning of the film we are privy to the discord in Jay and Shel’s life. He has not worked in eight months and the money that was set aside (40,000 pounds) is gone. Jay and Shel argue a lot and their son Sam (Harry Simpson) takes Shel’s side. She is adamant that Jay get back together with Gal for another contract hit.

We can see that they have an opulent lifestyle and by the amount of money that they’ve gone through in an eight month time period that money does not last too long in their house. Jay is on medication for a back problem that Shel says is in his head.

Fiona and Jay, before the crockery goes flying.

Gal comes over with a new girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer) for dinner. After a meal that culminates in Jay throwing a fit and scattering all the dishes to the floor, Gal tries to convince Jay to take on the contract with him because the money is good. Although Jay is angry about Gal and Shel going behind his back, he concedes.

The “kill list” consists of three men and when Gal and Jay meet their contact he seals the deal with his and Jay’s blood. The “hit” is on and the men go to kill their first victim.

This film has an underlying tension to it that oozes through every scene. The score is intrusive and has the effect of not only setting the atmosphere and the pace of the film but of deadening the dialogue between the characters. This combination makes the whole thing seem off-kilter, odd, and very ominous.

The score also has a fuzzy feeling to it, like you are hearing a low-pitched background roaring sound through cotton padding. This adds to the foreboding and aids the various set points of the film.

You get the feeling that none of this is going to go well for any of the participants. Events in the film, serpentine in and out causing the viewer to get lost if they are not careful; reality becomes blurred at one point in the film. The two men are hidden spectators to a strange ceremony. When the men make their presence known, the participants chase them and the accompanying noises sound like a combination of animal growls and pigs screaming. It is unsettling and scary as hell.

One of the ceremonial participants.

The film “feels” dark and each hit gets darker. The fact that each victim seems to recognise Jay disturbs him and starts affecting his job performance. There are reverences to Kiev and a job that the lads did that went wrong somehow. At one point Gal mumbles to himself that Jay is acting like he did in Kiev. This is never explored and left up to the viewer to imagine what went on.

The characters are not completely fleshed out in order for them to raise more questions than they answer. This has the added effect of keeping the viewer guessing as to what is going on with Jay. He is clearly the one with issues carried over from their past “mission.”

Gal’s girlfriend Fiona is a personnel resources specialist, whose job is to cut the fat from poorly performing organizations. Despite the fact that she breaks up with Gal, she visits Shel often and on the night of the dinner party puts a strange mark on the back of the bathroom mirror. She also takes a tissue with Jay’s blood on it.

Kill List has been compared to The Wicker Man and Witchfinder General, two  classic British horror films. Not a bad comparison as this film has all the hallmarks of a first-rate horror film thriller that will disturb you and will have you discussing it long after you’ve watched it.

I watched the film twice and found that Wheatley telegraphed his ending early on in the film. I take my hat off to him and the cast, who performed brilliantly, for what is one of the best English horror films that I have seen in ages.

I owe a special thanks to Darran over at foxiecinnamon for blogging about this film and bringing it to my attention. Good one mate.

Gal and Jay (Michael Smiley and Neil Maskell) hitmen together.

Author: Mike's Film Talk

Former Actor, Former Writer, Former Journalist, USAF Veteran, Former Member Nevada Film Critics Society

17 thoughts on “Kill List (2011): Keeping Death in the Family”

    1. I had to watch it with my headphones on and put the subtitles on, because the sound was annoying, but, I think that was done on purpose (I could be wrong) and I’m going to have to watch it a couple more times. Things were signposted in the film and I obviously missed a few of them. I really liked it and is oppressive atmosphere. 😀


  1. Cheers for the mention Mike ! I can see this one got under your skin a bit too – watching it twice in one night. 😛

    I watched it again last night too and I still love it – I noticed the dark humour more this time around, especially early on but then the film gets so dark that you are placed in such a strange state of mind as a viewer. It catches you off guard even if you have seen it before lol. Truly maddening film but a great one.

    Can I ask, did you feel you knew what Jay was doing with his Kill List by the end ? It’s one of those film’s that gives you some of the biggest reveals in the subtlest ways. Some people have complained that the film wasn’t clear enough with what happened. I felt that added to the compelling nature of it myself. Jay is unaware of what he’s being used for and we as audience know a little bit more than him, but not much, so we just have hat feeling of dread as to what is going to happen in the end. I think if you took away some of the Lynchian mystery of it it would be a much lesser film.

    Also, did you stick around and watch the credits? The song that plays over it is one of the scariest things in the film lol. I remember sticking around in a cinema theater by myself (the three or so other people that had watched the film already left) watching the credits roll and getting serious chills.


    1. No, this is one of those films that I’ll have to watch repeatedly. I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed (I had to watch Tale of Two Sisters 3 times and then my daughter had to TELL me what was going on! LOL) I was too busy getting weirded out by the rampage that Jay was on. I’m going to have to listen to the credits song now! Cheers for the heads up on this Brilliant film.


      1. Yeah I hadn’t sussed it out on the first or second go either – I like films that you can watch again and get more from though, they are few and far between.


  2. Good review! I just watched this tonight and feel I need to watch it over to catch some of the things that went overlooked in the first viewing.

    And I have a recommendation for you – the spanish thriller “The Hidden Face”. BUT DO NOT WATCH THE TRAILER! It gives the twist away!

    I really wish I could get some people on here to watch this and write their thoughts and maybe even do a review. It has to be one of the smartest movies I’ve ever seen and I’m always disappointed b/c no one has hardly heard of it, let alone actually watched it. I think you will like it, and if you watch it and like it you should write a review if you feel inspired. But if you do review it, be sure not to give the twist away! 🙂


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