It's easy to see why Ben Wheatley's sophomore feature Kill List won over British critics but found it much harder to woo audiences: it's a film with a lot going for it that really doesn't pay off and doesn't stand up to much examination. It's a film of surface pleasures, but of a very low budget indie kind - no big effects, set pieces or glossy visuals but strong characterisation, believable dialogue and excellent performances that give the illusion of eavesdropping on real life, all in the service of a genre that has long since turned into near-parody with over-stylised wisecracks and philosophising and comic book violence.
Starting out as a slice of life kitchen sink drama, becoming a thriller and gradually developing into a horror film, Neil Maskell is malingerer is persuaded by wife MyAnna Buring to get back to work with old army mate Michael Smiley because there's nothing left in the bank account. The work is well paid and local: kill three men in the UK. But these two don't behave like typical movie hitmen, more like commercial travellers, and it's that sense of the everyday observed that gives the film much of its power. Maskell argues with his wife in front of friends at dinner parties, gets pissed off when his credit card is declined at a hotel and finds corporate downsizing immoral while killing for a man who demands the contract be signed in blood. That's not the first hint that things are going to get a bit wickerish, but when his victims thank him even when he sets to work on them with a hammer, it's clear there's more going on than meets the eye. Or so it appears.
The reality is that there's actually less going on than meets the eye, but it's played in such a naturalistic style that it starts to convince you that it just might turn into something really special. All three leads are excellent, and even the supporting cast (which includes a cameo from Twins of Evil's Damien Thomas as a doctor) are convincingly naturalistic: even as the weirdness multiplies, they behave like recognisable human beings with all the light and shade and character flaws that implies. But the semi-improvised script is never as strong as the execution, particularly around the 75-minute mark when the film does a sharp u-turn purely to accommodate a very thin twist that doesn't really resolve or explain anything but just feels like it's there because the filmmakers thought it would make for a cool scene.
Unfortunately it's not enough, not so much because it leaves the hero as confused by what's happened as the audience but more because you come away with the feeling that it's just done for effect rather than as the inevitable result of the chain of events and the character's failings and that the reason there are unanswered questions is because the filmmakers haven't really thought it through that much. (The particularly weak director and producer's audio commentary does nothing to dispel the idea, especially compared to the amount of thought that goes into the alternate commentary by the cast.) Which is a shame, because for those first 75 minutes Kill List is shaping up to be a terrific movie and even after the final descent into silliness there's a lot to admire even if, as the film's cinematographer Laurie Rose noted, it's really just a film about a horrible man who wins a hat...