"Kill List" morphs subtly but devastatingly from an uncomfortable domestic drama to a brutally violent hit-man thriller to a what-the-hell-just-happened? exploration of a primal, paranoid nightmare.
Or is what we're seeing real?
Director and co-writer Ben Wheatley slyly gives nothing away, but rather has enough faith in his challenging material and in his audience to let us debate the meaning of the ending and fill in the blanks for ourselves. And his skillful cast of actors, who improvised much of the dialogue, absolutely sell it with an abiding naturalism, even as the film turns disturbing and outlandishly dark.
"Kill List" begins as a slice of life within a modern British family, but from the start, Wheatley creates a sense of unease through camerawork that feels a little too intimate and jump cuts between disconnected moments.
Jay (Neil Maskell) is an ex-soldier and unemployed assassin who's still reeling eight months after a job that went wrong in Kiev. While this may sound glamorous in a shadowy way, Jay and his wife, Shel (the beautiful MyAnna Buring), argue about all the same things normal married couples argue about - finances, health insurance, forgetting items at the grocery store, etc.
By grounding the film in such a prosaic, relatable way early on as Wheatley and co-writer Amy Jump do, it only makes the transition toward the extreme climax seem like even more of an impressive feat. You may look back at the end and wonder, how did we get here? Pay attention: There are small clues along the way.
Jay and Shel have a sensitive, 7-year-old son named Sam (Harry Simpson) who is learning to endure his parents' frequently fierce, volatile fights - one of which seems to come out of nowhere as they're hosting another couple for dinner. They are the dryly funny Gal (Michael Smiley, who has a fascinating ease in front of the camera) and his new girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer). Gal is Jay's partner, and has come with a new assignment that will get him back in business.
It's actually a series of hits, which they pull off without a hitch, but which also reveal Jay's tendency to go overboard. He's got a vengeful, sadistic streak in him, and "Kill List" will make you flinch more than once; it may also make you feel queasy the next time you see a hammer. Wheatley tempers these bloody bursts with low-key, darkly humorous discussions between the two longtime friends during their travels. Jay is tightly wound; Gal tends to roll with it. Of all the genres mashed together here, mismatched-buddy comedy may be the most unexpected.
But Jay himself seems to realize he's going over the edge, and tries to back out of his duties. This only drags him into a more dangerous world than he ever could have imagined. Just saying the names of the movies this culmination calls to mind would serve as a spoiler, so we'll let you discover the bizarro world Wheatley depicts for yourself.
You may not know exactly what you've seen, and sure, you could argue that there are some plot holes, and the literal vs. metaphorical interpretations are myriad. But the final moments of "Kill List" are bold and heart-pounding, and they're likely to shake you up and change your mood long afterward.
"Kill List," an IFC Midnight release, is not rated but contains graphic violence, disturbing images, nudity, language and smoking. Running time: 95 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.