In viewing Kill List recently I couldn’t help but have high expectations going in. After seeing the snazzy trailer, and being subjected to a bit of the hype machine that is currently surrounding it I thought I was in for a real rare bird – a film that somehow transcended the pitfalls of genre-bending and muddled narrative. But despite what you might hear from many other sources, this one does not live up to the hype. I found fleeting glimpses of quality throughout this murky, slowly paced misfire.
Kill List is a noble attempt at the current trend of genre-mash-up films that seem to be favored among the brave ranks of filmmakers out there who want to explore the best of multiple worlds – When they are mostly successful you get something like Death Proof and Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil, when they are not you get, well… Kill List. The “Genre-mash-up” concept probably looks good on paper but is obviously difficult to pull off if the proper tone is not achieved.
It goes something like this: You take two tough-guy hit-men for hire who need work living in a UK suburb, mix in a marriage on the rocks with the main tough guy and a gradually emerging plotline concerning these tough guys getting hired to kill a growing list of people for a secretive criminal organization and then sprinkle it with judicious bits of occult mystery-threats until it all turns into a total clusterfuck nightmare at the climax. There you have it: A sort-of crime-drama meets occult-horror hybrid.
The film starts well establishing a great sense of mood and mounting tension with an extended domestic scenario where our main character, Jay, an ex-soldier turned hit man, is having a rough night with his wife, Swedish-born Shel, while having his fellow hitman friend and his girlfriend over for dinner and drinks. It’s played with gritty, kitchen-sink realism and pulls you into the story effectively. Suddenly we find one unassuming character leaves a little clue that something more sinister and occult-related is going on under the surface. Then, as the domestic scenes give way to the emerging “kill list” job at hand, the film slowly stagnates and we are left with a protracted second act where things grow steadily more gruesome but are rendered in such a somber, one-note tone of “impending doom” with each successive scene that it all becomes numbing quite quickly. By the time we get to the final act instead of feeling a driving sense that these characters have gotten in over their heads, we as viewers, are asked to “fill in” too many gaps of what came before. The two hit men spend most of the movie stumbling onto more and more bad situations until they ultimately find themselves in a life or death confrontation with a coven of occult-crazies and are forced to fight to stay alive.
More than anything else the main problem is the editing. It’s one thing for a genre film to have some jump cutting and disorienting segments to stylize the shocking moments (see Black Swan) but it is another thing entirely for the whole film to be edited in an elliptical, impressionistic, jump-cut fashion so as to make many scenes clumsily spill over from one shot to the next with little cohesion or sense of pacing. Add to that the lack of any expositional dialogue to at least hint at what the characters might be thinking about all the weird circumstances that keep building up around them and you have a genre film that doesn’t really try to tell its story as fully as it could have. And yes, the fact that these hit men ultimately butt heads against a small occult army does give it a slight similarity to the classic British film, The Wicker Man, but where that film took its time establishing a perfect diabolical mystery for a its main character to go deeper and deeper into while losing his sense of self, this film seems to uncomfortably graft two opposing forces into a mismatched whole without making the effort to explore how it affects any of its believable but misguided characters.
To be fair the entire cast is entirely credible and does its best making the vague script come alive. When the action gets intense the film is gripping enough even though key moments of tension seem deflated and clumsy due to the disoriented editing. Also granted there are some very shocking moments of violence – one scene in particular involving a hammer made a viewer seated next to me start to hyperventilate.
Close to the end I found myself intrigued by the implications of the narrative and the meandering path the two hit men took to get to the nightmarish occult climax. It must be said the shock ending is telegraphed by the clues that came before it and if you don’t see it coming it’s quite possibly the only thing that might keep you in your seat. Overall, Kill List is an interesting mash-up concept that is too often let down by it’s muddled execution.
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