‘Kill List’ is a bone-rattling crime thriller with a dark side

It’s not always the case that highly-touted festival films have any success outside of places like Sundance or Toronto International Film Festival. In fact, festival favorites like the recent “Like Crazy” never seemed to capitalize on its rampant festival praise.

Now there’s director Ben Wheatley’s “Kill List,” after receiving praise from famed filmmakers like “Hugo” helmer Martin Scorsese and Edgar Wright of “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” fame, Wheatley’s film delivers on the it’s positively deafening word of mouth.

The moody crime thriller also caught the eye of many members of the press during its festival run, receiving generally positive reviews despite its dark subject material, and recently made its way to On Demand outlets, iTunes, and is enjoying a theatrical run in art house theaters nationwide thanks to IFC Films.

“Kill List” is a bleak tale that chronicles the downward spiral of Jay (Neil Maskell), a former military serviceman turned hitman, and his decision to finally take another job. This comes only a year after he severely botched another hit, but due to pressure from his caring wife Shel (MyAnna Burning) and fellow hitman Gal (Michael Smiley), he decides to take the job with a potentially large payoff.

Only this job isn’t like the ones before it, as the crew that hires Jay and Gal are especially secretive and hold a flair for dramatics. Something is off this time around, and as Jay becomes excessively stressed and excessively violent as the job goes along, things only grow grimmer for everybody he loves and cares about.

Wheatley’s first feature “Down Terrace” certainly shared some sensibilities of admirer Scorsese’s work, humanizing and giving dimension to character’s whose job it is to commit horrible crimes in a “Goodfellas”-style fashion, and there’s more of that in “Kill List.”

While many British crime thrillers, particularly the films of “Snatch” director Guy Ritchie, feel the need to revel in the soulless crimes committed by the characters, Wheatley explores these individuals’ occupations in the context of everyday life. For characters like Jay, killing is a way to provide for his family, though he certainly suffers from the immoral nature of his way of life.

Maskell applies some real depth to Jay as he struggles with his wife, the failures of his last hit, and his shortcomings as a father to his young son. While “Kill List” could certainly be labeled a crime thriller that treads into horror film territory, at its core it’s about Jay coping with how he provides for his family.

Burning takes a sharp left turn from her performances in major blockbusters like “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part I” and even her role in the 2005 horror film “The Descent,” to play the part of Maskell’s wife in the film, who is a nurturing mother that also accepts the work her often erratic husband does.

Jay and Sheloften fight and bicker much like Henry Hill and Karen throughout “Goodfellas,” only their tension doesn’t seem quite as stylized or overly-dramatic as it does in that film. Then again, Wheatley attempts to ground “Kill List” more in reality than the operatic heights to which a film like “Goodfellas” reaches.

This especially shines through in the film’s stark color palette and grimy cinematography, highlighting the suburban grind of the London suburb Sheffield. It’s a location that’s been seen on film on a number of occasions, perhaps most memorably in 1997’s “The Full Monty,” but cinematographer Laurie Rose and Wheatley occasionally evoke an austere beauty from the overcast skies and industrial feel of the location.

These beautifully framed images and especially Jim William’s haunting score, which sounds like a cross between “The Nightmare Before Christmas” composer Danny Elfman and something far more diabolic, lend the film an almost mystical charm that also foreshadows the looming terror in the film’s final act.

It’s the sort of “Wicker Man”-inspired final third of “Kill List” that has most people talking, as the film heads into some rather dangerous territory. Jay’s feelings that all is not what it seems with this latest job come to light, though Wheatley sets up many unnerving moments throughout the running time to help indicate to viewers that things are about to become quite devilish.

“Kill List” ends in a way that will surely lend itself to multiple viewings and perhaps a generally polarized audience. While the journey to the film’s climax is well worth the watch, the ending is subject to what exactly terrifies you on an individual basis.

While some detractors have argued that Wheatley lost the plot by the film’s conclusion, those who appreciate “Kill List” will marvel at the way he intricately ties up the film with a garish but gratifying conclusion. It’s a film that’s certainly not for the faint of heart, as even its more crime thriller- inspired early bits are bitter to swallow. Yet for a viewer prone to watch any of the films it’s been compared to, it’s a satisfying and thrilling watch.