Friday, October 16, 2015
HubrisWeen 3, Day 11: Kill List (2011)
Written by Amy Jump and Ben Wheatley
Directed by Ben Wheatley
Neil Maskell: Jay
MyAnna Buring: Shel
Harry Simpson: Sam
Michael Smiley: Gal
Emma Fryer: Fiona
I'd heard of Ben Wheatley for a few years; to hear the critics tell it he's got a knack for pitch-dark comedy, historical horror and crime thrillers. That's three knacks. I really wanted to see A Field in England but if it played anywhere in Michigan I was sick that day and missed it. And so when it came time to assemble this year's HubrisWeen list I scribbled this one as my first choice for K when I saw who the director was. It's one of the benefits of doing this project--as long as the letters all match up the way they're supposed to, I can cross lots of stuff off my "to be watched" list. This was Wheatley's second movie, and judging from all the superlatives on the poster, he was able to avoid his sophomore slump with ease.
He's made a movie about criminals who wind up horrifyingly in over their heads after taking a simple job for the money. It's got at least a little bit of Q, the Winged Serpent in its DNA with strange religion lurking around in the background and a small-time hood (a killer instead of a getaway driver) finding that the world is stranger and more horrifying than he ever thought. Like Grabbers, this film was made with funds raised by the UK Lottery. I'd feel better about losing at Powerball every time I played if I knew I'd be getting horror movies out of it. The credits unfurl as a sigil is chalked on stone or possibly scratched into some unyielding material (maybe wood) with scraping noises and a bell tolling on the soundtrack. I don't recognize the symbol, but I'm hardly a professor of occult studies. I just read a lot of comic books and roleplaying materials, and nothing I'm familiar with looked like that.
Jarringly, the film snaps to a married couple yelling abuse at each other (with English accents) over a "missing" 40,000 pounds. It seems that Jay, the man of the house, stockpiled it eight months ago and now it's gone. Sure, food and petrol cost money and you have to pay the local Dalek your protection fee every month but that sounds like they really blew through their nest egg. Shel, his wife, says he hasn't worked in those eight months, so if they have a high standard of living to maintain he'd better get cracking and find some paying work out there. In addition to the stress these people are inflicting on each other, they have a young son who's playing with toy knights and studiously ignoring his parents screaming at each other a couple rooms away. Jay says they can tap into their holiday savings in order to keep the hot tub in service, which is for his back. His wife screams at him that they've spent those savings already and that all his problems are psychosomatic, not physical.
Outside in the back garden, the Jacuzzi's motor sputters and dies as Shel watches her husband not get it to work. Jay and his wife are apparently planning a dinner party, but the man of the house turns out to be a completely untrustworthy shopper--he came back with 200 quid worth of wine, but nothing else that his wife put on the list (and even though bog roll was underlined twice on there, he didn't manage to pick any up). If several shopping bags full of wine is the only thing you come back with after a grocery run, you have problems. At least Jay scraped off the several days' worth of stubble he was working on before he went shopping. In lieu of bitter recriminations and further arguments, Jay decides to have a foam-sword fencing match with his son Sam. Scenes of backyard derring-do follow a montage of Shel talking to someone on the phone in untranslated Swedish (I'm assuming it's her parents), crying about her current situation while footage of her and Jay trying to comfort each other worldlessly plays over it.
That night, Jay tells a bedtime story to Sam (living up to a promise that Shel made); his story is transparently a list of things he saw overseas in the Iraq or Afghanistan wars and when he trails off Sam tells him he shouldn't shout at his wife. Further cracks in the marriage are revealed when Sam calls his dad "a bit lazy"--the look on Jay's face as he absorbs this information is pretty terrifying. It's likely he's carrying a load of PTSD-related stress and if he's as macho as I suspect, he's unwilling to ask anyone to help him with it so he'll carry it till it crushes him. His hands shake as he buttons up his shirt the next day for the dinner party and the churning noise on the soundtrack suggests the stress corroding his mind. The guests for dinner are Gal (possibly short for Galahad, I guess, because he's a man) and his girlfriend of the moment Fiona; Jay and Gal are smiling at the camera in a framed picture on the foyer desk in Jay and Shel's house--both are wearing black military uniforms with no insignia or name badges. Jay says they were working a "security detail", but it sure looks mercenary to me. Shel, for that matter, has a picture of her in uniform when she was in the Swedish army.
Before the dinner, Jay and Gal are sitting in the back yard by a fire pit shooting the breeze. Gal says the money is really good for some unspecified task that former mercenaries would be good at and Jay says he just can't do it any more. Before an argument can start Shel calls the men in for dinner (which turns out to be a rack of lamb, and it looks quite delicious). Fiona asks about Jay's career and he says he's simultaneously in advertising sales and IT, which transparently are not among his set of particular skills. Fiona excuses herself to the loo and Gal goes off in search of more wine which gives Shel and Jay a chance to whisper insults to each other until they come back. When Fiona returns to the table, she says she works in human resources and seems to be amused by some private joke. She gives a business-speak explanation of her corporate function, but it gets summed up as "you sack people" by Jay. His commentary on how that impacts the downsized workers' families gives Shel an opening to ask him when he last cared about the welfare of his own family, complete with a reference to the "eight months ago" thing that happened.
The conversation lurches from disaster to catastrophe as the subject of the Irish situation comes up, where Fiona doesn't understand why two Christian factions can't get along and Gal says it's an open question whether one side is genuinely Christian--he's got an Irish accent, but I don't know enough about regional pronunciation to know whether the audience is supposed to assume he's Catholic or Protestant (or even if we are). Jay, morose and probably a little drunk, mutters about how his war was Iraq and he never got to stand up to global fascism like his grandfathers' generation did in the Forties. Jay flips his plate over and then makes as good an effort as he can to ruin everything--the screaming match with Shel starts and you can sense the festering wounded masculinity that's driving Jay to do everything that he's been doing, good and bad. Gal takes Sam upstairs to bed and Fiona stays silently at the dinner table while Shel and Jay tear into each other at the top of their lungs. Gal does what he can to put Sam's mind at ease about the frequent shouting matches and it's up to Shel to apologize to Fiona for how badly things have gone while clearing up the dishes (and there is some fantastically bleak dialogue from Shel during this sequence).
Jay's sulking in the garage and smoking a cigarette when Gal comes in to talk. Gal says that there's just three and it won't be too strenuous, then pulls an automatic rifle out of a cooler where it was stashed. After some masculine banter Jay mentions Kiev (but nothing more than that single word) and Gal tells him that was eight months ago and it's time for him to "get back on the horse again". The two men embrace (the first moment of loving physical contact in the movie) and Jay says he'll do it. Whatever "it" is, but given that the movie is called Kill List I'm betting I can tell what it is. When Jay goes back inside he and Shel look at each other with some hostility but with enough wine everyone's laughing and having a good time. Then it's time to put love songs on the home stereo and the couples have a slow dance. And Jay, alone with Shel in the back yard for a moment, apologizes in all apparent sincerity for everything he's been doing wrong.
Everything seems to be okay, if not perfect, and then Fiona goes into the bathroom to carve that symbol from the opening credits into the back of a mirror with a borrowed kitchen knife and take a Kleenex with Jay's blood on it from a shaving nick. I have the feeling that her "human resources" department views people as a renewable resource, but it's important to remember that even renewable resources get consumed. It's a jarringly weird out-of-place moment, and made all the more so because Gal, Shel and Jay are all acting exactly the same the next time we see them. Gal and Jay wind up mock-brawling on the front lawn, inebriated and mock-hostile, though I expected it to turn into an actual beatdown. And Jay lets the pleasant mask slip the second his friend drives away, turning his back on Shel as his face drops in an instant from a smile to a look of vacant hostility.
The next morning, Jay's in contrite mode towards Sam and shows off a dead rabbit in the yard that the family's pet cat has left as a gift for them. Jay decides to pan-fry the rabbit with onions and makes a meal of it out in the backyard, to Sam's bemusement. Though Shel just thinks he's being a prat--with more than some justification. After that brunch, Jay goes to visit the catastrophically hungover Gal at his place. Fiona left him (supposedly with a "Dear John" letter taped to his junk) and with nothing else to occupy their time the pair dress in black jackets and go to a big impressive hotel to take a meeting. Gal insists on them being armed (which is probably a really big deal in England as opposed to in the States, where you can get hollow-point bullets when you upsize a combo meal at Chik-Fil-A). There's a really cool shot of Gal's car framed by a rainbow as the pair of men get out and go to their meeting. Don't know if it means anything or not, but it shows that Wheatley was able to capitalize on seeing something cool in the sky while filming. Or that he's a supervillain with a weather control machine and he's using it for this. Showoff.
Jay and Gal are led down a succession of hallways to a man with stacks of cash in front of him on a little end table. He says they've been recommended for this job, then slices Jay's palm with a knife. Gal aims his gun at the man, who then slices his own hand and presses it to a piece of paper. Looks like Jay's signed something in blood along with the client. Jay retreats to the bathroom to clean off his hand, which is bleeding profusely. Gal helps himself to the complementary shampoo bottles and the pair of hitmen leave the hotel (Gal griping that the clients never say please or thank you--there's such a thing as good manners).
Jay returns home, puts a decent bandage on his hand, makes monkey noises for Sam, kisses Shel goodbye and leaves for his task. Gal's the driver (which might make him extra-doomed, because the driver never does well in a crime film). They check in to a hotel posing as traveling salesmen. The hotel clerk sees through this immediately, but doesn't press the issue. There's some minor difficulty at the check-in when Jay's bank card is declined, so he has to call Shel and get in an argument about that when he should be keeping his head clear. During the brief strategy meeting in the hotel room it's decided to follow their target around for a while and then kill him discreetly at an opportune moment. At dinner, Gal and Jay are at one table in a cavernous empty room and a party of six people in a support group are the only other people eating there--and they've been seated close enough that the two main characters can hear all their jargon-filled discussions about processing their emotional responses and working through their issues. Then, worse still, one of them announces he'll go get his guitar so they can sing a song. Jay snags the guitar from the man who was sort of playing it (and fans of Game of Thrones will recognize him as the actor who plays Dolorous Edd). Bloodshed is averted although the guitarist responds with patience and love to the jerkoff who threatened him. Way to keep a low profile, Jay.
I don't know what the pair were expecting from their first target, but the requisite slightly blurry photo of their quarry failed to reveal that he is a priest. Well, they've already been paid so it's time to do the work. There's an intertitle--the first in the movie, and showing up 37 minutes in--that just says THE PRIEST in huge white letters. Gal and Jay stake out the church where the priest lives and works. Gal is apprehensive, while Jay figures that the most likely reason someone wants a priest killed involves children (and that killing a child molester might earn them bonus points with God, which both of them could use). They break in to the back of the church while services are in progress (the priest sermonizing to half a dozen people in their seventies) and sneak into his office, where they will wait for their chance to cross the first name off their list. They're smart enough to wear latex gloves and put down plastic sheeting for the hit (I honestly expected them to be a stupider based on everything else they've said and done in the movie so far). When the priest comes in to his office and sees the gun pointed at him, he thanks Jay before turning away from the bullet. I'm willing to bet neither the characters nor the audience expected that. The body goes into a trash incinerator and Gal wonders why the priest seemed happy to be murdered.
During a Skype call back home, Jay and Shel communicate without any specifics about how well things are going re: killing three people for money and Shel says that Fiona came back to their house with a present for Sam. Jay says that sounds a little odd but basically harmless and that Fiona shouldn't be allowed in the garage when or if she comes back again. Sounds pretty sensible on both counts.
On to the second target, and more masculine smack talk in the car while waiting to get a look at the next person they're going to shoot. They spot the second man leaving a run-down industrial warehouse and Jay says they need to take a look inside it before killing the man they spotted leaving it. Bolt cutters turn out to make a hell of a lockpick and the two men go inside. Judging from the porno magazines all over a shelving unit, it's just the guy's private jerkoff getaway, but Gal notes that masturbation isn't a capital crime, even by the standards of rich hand-slicing weirdos. Gal turns on a video player and the audience hears a woman screaming on the television. Jay decides to watch it even after Gal tells him he's better off not viewing it and the already unstable man breaks down crying when he sees the video.
Which is the cue for the second title card: THE LIBRARIAN.
We don't see Jay and Gal track their second victim down; instead, we just get a jump cut to them shoving the guy through his front door and beating the son of a bitch to a pulp. In contrast to the welcoming smile when they killed the priest, the librarian is screaming in agony as they work him over. The librarian says they've mistaken him for someone else until Jay mentions that they've seen what was in his storage lockup--then he breaks down crying. Turns out telling your murderers that it isn't fair won't engage their sympathy. Neither will refusing to answer who made that video and why you're storing it for them. Jay is angry enough to torture the librarian into confessing who he works for and Gal asks where the guy stores his money. While Gal's off cracking the librarian's home safe, the man (tied to a chair, bleeding from the ears and nose and utterly incapable of coming up with a clever story) asks Jay if his partner knows who he is. Not only doesn't Gal know Jay's secret identity, Jay doesn't know what the hell his victim is talking about. Nor does he come close to understanding why the man thanks him and says he's glad he got to meet Jay. For that matter, it's a puzzler for the audience as well.
Gal isn't wearing gloves when he goes through the librarian's stuff, which is not the smartest move he ever made. While he's upstairs doing that, Jay is breaking the librarian's limbs with a hammer (and when the man stops screaming long enough to collect his thoughts, he thanks Jay again). I think it's the confusion and revulsion about why his victim keeps thanking him that drives Jay to finally bludgeon him to death. The effects for that sequence are horrifying, with the man's fingers bending the wrong way and a huge section of his scalp coming loose under the hammer blows. When Gal sees what Jay's done down in the kitchen he mutters that he's not helping to clean up the mess--understandable, yes, but hardly the smartest thing a criminal could do if there's neighbors who would have heard the screaming over the last several minutes.
Jay wants to go to the address the librarian gave them immediately, while his partner understands what a horrible, horrible idea that is (but goes along with it anyway). Gal even tries to tell Jay that he's putting them both at risk by searching for a target they haven't been paid to kill, and that Jay's far too angry to make smart decisions. But you try talking to the man when he's got his blood up. He hasn't listened to any other characters in the film so far, and it's a fool's errand to expect him to start now. The film is lit a sickly, jaundiced yellow when Gal goes in after Jay to either help him out or finish him off (as necessary) and the camerawork goes handheld and shaky as if Gal is being followed himself while he's on his mission.
Inside the house, Gal finds a dead guard dog and a dead guard with a teakettle on an electric warmer sounding like a scream. He interrupts Jay smashing a man's head to a pulp against a wall; Jay asks if that was really twenty minutes elapsed already and shoots the man in the head three times. In the car ride to dispose of the bodies, Gal tries to influence his partner by mentioning that good house painters have clean overalls at the end of the day ("Point taken."). One quick wash-up in the car in a petrol station parking lot later, the pair are ready to make a bonfire on a little spit of industrial land and toss some bodies on it. Jay says that bad people deserve to suffer while looking at the pyre. It's the most introspective thing he's uttered through the entire movie. I'm not sure if the shot of Jay, looking out from a hotel room window at least half a dozen stories up and waving to Fiona on the ground is something that really happened or is just in Jay's mind, but either way he's returning home to Shel immediately thereafter.
When he gets home he finds that Sam isn't there and Fiona is; his sense of masculinity doesn't prod him into acting like a territorial asshole for once. But when he goes up to shower before socializing he notices a nasty rash on his arms and chest and Shel undoes the bandage on his hand. They discover that his cut is going septic and medical attention is going to be very, very necessary. Jay refuses at first, thinking that a little Neosporin will have him right as rain but the next shot is him sitting down in a waiting room so I'm guessing he lost that argument. The doctor runs through a list of stress-related symptoms to see if there's any underlying causes for his current ill health. He also tries to tell Jay to enjoy the present because that's the only place we ever are. I think Jay just wanted someone to take care of his hand, honestly.
Gal winds up digging through a huge collection of files that the librarian had in his safe; the bad news is that there's pictures of the two killers outside the priest's house. The worse news is that one other file is labeled "Kiev". While Gal makes that ominous discovery Shel finds that the family cat has been murdered and hanged outside their front door. She and Jay think asshole kids or roving gypsies might have done it for a lark. When Gal shows up to talk about his discovery and learns about the cat's death there's a difference of opinions--Gal thinks they should quit with the job two-thirds done (and is worried about how powerful the librarian's masters were to have the Kiev file) while Jay thinks the pet was killed to send him a message about not stopping things before they are completed.
Jay displays even more anger and less remorse than he already had and Gal (a contract killer) thinks that Jay needs to seek therapy. He's quitting the job as of right now before Jay gets them caught, killed or worse. Jay views this as Gal going soft; Shel flips out and slaps his several times, shouting that he needs to wake up.
The next we see of Jay he's lying down in a booze-and-pills stupor on his bed, so he's obviously going the opposite route from his wife's recommendation. Shel wants him to break the contract (which probably won't go well for him if he does--people who pay for murders like things to be done completely, I'm guessing). He and Gal do go for a meeting with their client, though, and try to walk away. They promise replacements who even look like them, but the client says it's their job and that leaving will result in their deaths as well as those of their entire families. As a gesture of good faith, the client offers another pile of cash and an envelope with a name in it. Gal takes umbrage and that doesn't get him anywhere at all, so the pair leave for the third task. But before anything else happens, Shel says that she's taking Sam to their cottage until the job is done (and tells Jay that he's very close to losing her and his son, which only fuels Jay's ever-simmering anger).
The third target is a Minister of Parliament, which probably means increased security around the target and the guarantee of law enforcement taking the murder very seriously. If Jay and Gal are as casual about touching things without gloves and leaving the murder scene while spattered with blood they're going to be picked up in a matter of hours if they're lucky and minutes if they aren't. During a talk about the job things go sour immediately, both men needling each other for their respective failures and Jay getting slapped for provoking his partner first. Then there's a massive brawl in the safe suburban home. The fight is as crude and ugly as the filmmakers and performers can make it with neither man doing anything clever or flashy--it's just two guys rolling around on the floor trying to beat each other to a pulp or choke each other out. After the brawl they talk again, have a couple of beers, bury the hatchet and resolve to go kill a high-ranking government official for money.
Which leads to a drive in the countryside and the title card THE M.P. on the screen.
The two men break through a sewer gate on the minister's estate and walk through heavy woods on the way to their target. Neither one is wearing gloves while they set up a campsite (and Gal brings back a pair of freshly killed rabbits for dinner, which puts him in the same situation as the cat from earlier in the film). As the sun sets, the pair look at the gigantic mansion that the M.P. calls home. Gal thinks it isn't right that one person should have a three-story mansion with dozens of rooms all to himself. Jay thinks that the reason they're on the job is that nothing's right. They catch some sleep and wait for their opportunity to go kill their victim later. Much later that night Jay wakes Gal up so he can apologize to him for all the festering rage and hatred that's been driving him for the entire narrative; Gal accepts the apology, says Jay's his best mate and he loves him, and goes back to sleep.
There's an eerie, keening whistling on the wind when Jay wakes Gal up (it's still pitch dark out), and a procession of white-clad people carrying torches walks out in a meadow on the M.P.'s estate in the middle of the night. Someone's playing a drum and another person is chanting. Upon looking closer at the people, some are nude and everyone's wearing masks that look like bundles of sticks or straw (which cannot be safe that close to the torches). Rain starts to fall and the two killers see the procession continuing to a clearing where a tripod of wooden beams has been assembled; a noose hangs down from the apex of that pyramid. Whatever story Gal and Jay (and the viewers) through was going on, it's a different one. A woman wearing a dress garlanded with banknotes steps into the triangle climbs up on a tree stump, slips the noose over her head and steps off the stump to dance in the air while the cultists around her applaud. Either it's a coincidence that she's facing towards Jay and Gal as she dies...or it isn't.
Jay mutters "Fuck this" and picks up a rifle, taking down one of the apparent leaders of the cult (he isn't wearing a mask). Everyone else charges at Jay and Gal, who retreat from the assault, firing into the crowd but not killing enough people to stop their charge. They make it to the sewer tunnel they used to gain access to the manor grounds but either they took a wrong turn in the lightless tunnels or they've been trapped because they entrance they used the previous day has been sealed with bricks and mortar. The cultists continue to pursue the two killers through the tunnels in a disorienting sequence full of dim light punctuated by bright gunfire, splattering blood, inhuman shrieking from the cultists and echoing shotgun blasts. Gal gets jumped and stabbed several times before he shoots his attacker and Jay catches up to him to discover that his best friend has been disemboweled by the cultist. There's no way Gal can escape in the dark and Jay administers the coup de grace via a .45 automatic before escaping. The next morning he's thinking about Gal and literally opening an old wound on his hand at the same time.
Jay makes it to the cottage where Shel and Sam are waiting and tells his wife that it's all over. It isn't, of course, and when he hears someone moving outside he discovers that his car tires have been slashed. He tells Shel to get upstairs and keep their son safe, then turns off all the lights in the cottage to put himself and the attackers on even footing (you can't see outside at night when the lights are on inside, but everyone out there can tell where you are). Jay empties his pistol at some six-foot torches planted on the lawn and then goes out to investigate after arming Shel. I'm amazed at how tense I felt watching Jay creep around when he hasn't demonstrated a single redeeming quality through the entire film--watching him try to protect his wife and son means that I actually cared if something happened to the son of a bitch. He gets knocked unconscious when someone sneaks up on him in the dark, though.
Shel turns out to be much less of a pushover than the cult probably thought she would--she kills several of them as they try to sneak into the cottage. Then we get another screen-filling title card:
Jay wakes up to find more cultists around him--this time with black robes instead of white (and one woman standing silently there, blindfolded and blinded by thorn branches in what might be the eeriest image in the film so far). One of them stabs Jay's hand wound and he's takes to the middle of a clearing. His shirt is ripped off and a stick mask is tied on to his face; he gets a knife to defend himself as a hunchbacked figure in a mask and cloak staggers towards him. Whatever horrible demons have been driving Jay's personality for months--or even years--are now actually what's keeping him alive, as he knocks the hunchback to the ground and stabs him over and over in the hump. Blood spurts everywhere as Jay triumphs. The cultists applaud, apparently hoping that is exactly what would happen and some of them remove their masks, revealing that Fiona and the nameless client are among their number.
And then Jay pulls the mask off the hunchback's face to reveal that it was Shel, who laughs at him as she bleeds out. All the sound drops out of the film for a moment when he pulls the cloak off of his attacker's hump and finds that he just stabbed Sam to death. The cultists applaud and one of them puts a twig-and-branch crown on Jay's head as he stands there, numb, anointed in his wife and son's blood.
The film ends. Jay--and we--never learn what the purpose was of putting him through the wringer. But it's enough to know that he worked tirelessly to bring about his own damnation once Fiona and her masters figured he was just the person they wanted for whatever it is they're going to do with him.
Good grief. I knew it was a horror movie thanks to Netflix putting it in that section, but the shift to occult horror is so jarring in the final act that I wonder how audiences (rather than critics) viewed it at the time. I also wonder if there's specific British horror tropes I don't know anything about that could have led me to figure out what was going to happen earlier than I did. After all, I spotted that Gal wound up bringing a rabbit to Jay just like the family cat did, and that's a clue to Gal's eventual fate. Perhaps shots of the full moon would have meant something to me other than "spooky atmosphere". The twig masks seem to recall The Wicker Man at least a little bit. Or perhaps everyone else who saw the movie got caught just like I did.
Thinking on it a little while, I wonder if this is Ben Wheatley's take on a narrative like The Blair Witch Project--the main character is surrounded by supernatural menace that only becomes apparent in the final moments. If I'd known more about what he was facing perhaps I would have seen it coming, but I was blindsided just as much as poor Jay was at the end. And when he stands there in the final shot there's no grief or rage on his face, but no triumph either. He's been burnt out completely by what he's done at last. It might be that the cult needed someone who jumped through all the prerequisite hoops to become who they needed, or it might even be that whatever it is that wears that crown is also wearing Jay's body like a suit of clothing. After all, normal people don't smile at the thought of being executed in their home, like the priest did. But someone who knew he was one small part of a great and glorious task would go to his death peacefully and happy, perhaps even daydreaming of the reward he was about to earn in Hell.
Or it could just be a bunch of rich pricks who worship power and think they can get more of it by following the instructions in an old book--or even invented a ritual to bind themselves together in their acts. There's so little information given to the viewer because the character we are closest to doesn't know anything about it at all. Why would Sam and Shel decide to go along with a plan that guaranteed their deaths at Jay's hands? Were they cajoled into it? Promised wealth and power? Or were they, too, just useful saps for the client and his friends?
Which is a more horrifying answer to you? That it was all done for nothing, or that it was all done with a purpose?