Kill List: Fate, Morality & the Modern Greek Tragedy. Plus Turducken.
Warning! There are spoilers below! If you haven't seen the film, come back to read this after you have!
Kill List is one of the top three horror films of the past decade.Yeah, I said it. If you've seen the film, and didn't enjoy or understand it, you're probably looking at your computer screen sideways right now. Or cross-eyed. Most people have a negative reaction to the film. But I'll say it again - this movie is fantastic, and one of the best horror films of the last 10 years. Kill List is a wonderfully crafted, strange, eerie and compelling morality tale. It's the equivalent of a modern Greek tragedy, wrapped up in a gangster film, stuffed into a horror film perfectly suited for our contemporary sensibilities. It is the Turducken of horror films - delicious, nuanced, and richly layered.
In the beginning of the film, we're introduced to Jay (played by Neil Maskell), a "retired" contract killer who is struggling to make ends meet for his young son and wife. From early on, it's clear Jay is already a broken man. He and his wife fight constantly and bitterly. And there's talk about something that occurred in Kiev - a job that went horribly wrong. So wrong, it seems, that it was the catalyst that forced Jay into early self-retirement.
Hold on. Pause. Can we take a minute here to talk about how creepy Neil Maskell is? Jesus. I mean, he could be - and probably is! - a perfectly nice guy. But every time I see him in something, I want to crawl under a rug. He. Is. Terrifying.
Okay, back to the film. Jay is approached by family friend and ex-partner in crime Gal (played by Guy Smiley) with an offer that's difficult to pass up, particularly under the mounting pressure from his wife to find work. One final job. One list. Three hits. And loads of cash. Jay accepts.
Most discussions around the film are in the vein of "What the fuck did I just watch??" And it's true that the narrative is anything but straightforward. I think Kill List is so horribly confusing to many viewers because of the tendency to strictly compartmentalize film genres, so our understanding of the film is based on genre tropes and how they operate. But Wheatley blows this all apart. So yeah, at times the film seems like a shit show.
But let's keep it simple and look at what we DO know: Jay is The Chosen One. He is marked to serve as - I believe - the embodiment of Evil. And the cult's choice of Jay as their leader is rooted in things that occurred before the point at which we as viewers join the story. The result is a film with an ending that's a forgone conclusion, the fulfillment of a prophecy. Everything that happens throughout the film was engineered long before we meet Jay. So though the final moments of the film initially *seem* unexpected, upon closer inspection we come to realize that what occurs was Jay's fate all along.
There it is...that tricky word. Fate.
The notions of fate and prophecy figure prominently in Greek tragedies, and in my opinion a deeper understanding of what is happening in Kill List benefits from drawing parallels with these stories, particularly the tale of Oedipus. Jay is a modern Oedipal-like figure, and ultimately serves as a vessel for fulfilling the tragic arc of the story. And in true Greek tragedy fashion, Jay's end is foreshadowed. We get a hint of the final moments of the film in the scene where he's shown play sword-fighting with his son in the backyard. The two swirl around and slash at one another, much as they will an roughly an hour later.
Once Jay has made the decision to take the job, the story propels forward without him needing to make any decisions of a moralistic nature, and the kill list serves as the constraining device for his actions. He's just doing a job for a client. All he has to do is follow the list. And he does.
Until we get to The Librarian. This scene is pivotal for Jay's narrative trajectory, for us as viewers and, I would argue, for the cult and the fulfillment of the prophecy. It is the one time that he operates outside of the strict confines of what the list and the job requires.
After viewing a disturbing video (it's implied that the video is pornographic in nature and may involve children), Jay smashes The Librarian's head in, and with such unflinching violence - the camera never cuts away - that it rattles us. He then makes the choice, much to Guy's displeasure, to hunt down the maker of the videos and kill him as well. It's a hit not on the list; a choice, it's important to note, made by Jay based on his moral compass. But is that compass intact?
In my opinion, this moment serves as Jay's final test from the cult, a precisely engineered situation to see what he will do. This theory is supported by Gal's discovery of a file on Jay and himself, with the cult's symbol on it, at The Librarian's home. If Jay chooses to move beyond the list, to kill with impunity based on his moral sensibility, then they've selected the right person to become their leader.
In the same vein, the scene also serves as a turning point for the viewer. If we were in Jay's position, would we not have done (or been tempted to do) the exact same thing? What is the separation between ourselves and Jay, between our moral sensibilities and his? Here director Ben Wheatley forces our hand - we're required wrestle with our own sense of right and wrong, and with the grayness of moral ambiguity. If we believe it's okay to do whatever it takes to protect those we love, is there a point for us when Jay's characterization shifts from hero to anti-hero? Where is that point? It's an incredibly murky minefield, and Wheatley navigates it deftly.
Much has been made of the final scene of the film, and Jay's reaction - or lack thereof - to discovering the true nature of The Hunchback. Ultimately, I view this scene as thematically in step with the rest of the film. In much the same way that masks are used in traditional stage productions of the story of Oedipus, removing any sense of personality from the main character, in the end of Kill List we are met with an indecipherable, mask-like expression on Jay's face. His ruthlessness and narrow view of right and wrong ultimately accelerate his downfall, and hurtles him towards destroying the one thing he was aiming to keep intact - his family.
So, as you can probably tell, I absolutely love this movie and could write so much more! Is it perfect? Absolutely not. Films rarely are. But these are HUGE, tricky topics Wheatley is taking on - morality, fate, the nature of evil, what horror means within the strictures of real life - and I think he does a masterful job of handling things, while simultaneously providing us a with a whole new direction for the horror genre. And that's no small thing!