[ed. note: because of the holiday, this week’s Desert Island Disc pieces will be posted on Wednesday and Friday. See you then!]
Kill List (Ben Wheatley, 2011)
I have talked, over the years, a number of times about the importance of studios marketing their movies correctly, and how the mismarketing of a movie can lead to not one, but two related, major problems: the audience who should be seeing the movie not cottoning to its existence, and the audience who should not be seeing the movie (those it is being marketed to) sitting down with it, finding something entirely different than they were told they’d be getting, and absolutely hating it as a result. Between these two problems, the movie ends up becoming almost universally reviled, and then that first group, the ones who would probably get a great deal out of it, hear it sucks and never get there in the first place. I’ve used all my favorite whipping boys for this in recent reviews, so let me introduce you to an incredible Chicago filmmaker by the name of Ricardo Islas. Islas makes what I like to call aggressively-indie films. They have no discernible budget, use sets that are just as ridiculous as those you find in Ulli Lommel and Uwe Böll movies (though given Islas’ budget, they make a lot more sense here), star a bunch of people you’ve never heard of, and are consistently marketed as horror movies. In some cases, that kind of makes sense; when you title one of your movies The Zombie Farm, you gotta figure someone’s going to pick up on the fact that the movie contains zombies and act accordingly. But kids who have been raised in the post-Romero era, and who have never seen White Zombie or any of the other movies that treat zombies in a more traditional way are going to look at The Zombie Farm and say “what the hell is this crap?”. (The Zombie Farm, by the way, is a fantastic little thriller, and while it’s not Islas’ best work—when I started this paragraph I had intended to harp on the brilliance of my favorite movie of his, Lockout—but you gotta see it anyway.)
NOTE: while the spoiler stop sign is below, this is one case where I will be actively encouraging you to read the spoilers in question, as I believe NOT knowing them will negatively affect your viewing of the film (there is more than enough spoiler-laden evidence of this on the IMDB boards to justify this decision).
What does all of this have to do with Ben Wheatley?, you may be asking yourself. It has to do with Wheatley because Kill List, in everything I heard and read about the movie before I actually saw it, including all of the reviews I allowed myself to read, posited Kill List as Yet Another British Crime Thriller, but a cut above the usual malarkey. So I’m sitting down with this movie thinking I’m going to get another Ray Winstone movie (and wondering why Ray Winstone is, in fact, not in this film), and instead I get The Wicker Man. Except that it took me about thirty minutes of my sitting there saying “what the fuck did I just watch?” to realize that I had, in fact, seen a movie that had far more in common with The Wicker Man and the not-quite-Hammer films of its early-seventies ilk than anything Guy Ritchie ever did. (And, as Captain Peacock was wont to say, “Thank Heaven for that.”) But still, I did sit there for thirty minutes asking myself the question. And here’s where the marketing bit comes in. I admit, I came quite late to The Wicker Man. I first saw it when I was in high school, though I can’t give you a specific year; it was sometime in the mid-eighties. I loathed it, but I knew exactly what I was getting into thanks to the VHS box copy and everything I’d read about the film. I knew there was a supernatural element to it from the outset, and I was prepared for that. (I didn’t form my current love of the film until the 104-minute cut was released in the late-nineties, which made much more sense out of the incomprehensible soup that was the initial American theatrical cut. And as I write this, it was just announced earlier this week that something I have been hoping would happen for over a decade has finally come to pass: the twenty-two minutes of footage from the original 126-minute cut, which me pal Ian Davey has been telling me forever was probably part of the M1, has been found, and there’s a newly-remastered director’s cut coming on DVD eventually. Oh, happy day.) And for all I know this entire paragraph is a spoiler, and you’re not supposed to know about the supernatural element to this movie until it’s sprung on you. If so, well, I’ll put the spoiler stop sign up at the top of this paragraph when I publish it, but hey guys? That was a really, really bad idea, not letting the public know that this wasn’t your basic Britcrime movie.
It starts out that way. Jay (Atonement‘s Neil Maskell), an ex-army hit man, hasn’t worked in eight months, and the money’s run out. Something horrible happened on his last job, but other than us finding out something horrible happened on his last job, we never get any details. His wife Shel (The Descent‘s MyAnna Buring) is sick of him moping about the house and, in the kind of manipulative move that drives me bats, invites Jay’s old partner Gal (Burke and Hare‘s Michael Smiley) and his new girlfriend Fiona (TV actress Emma Fryer in her first credited feature appearance) over for dinner so Gal can pitch a new job he’s just picked up to Jay. Despite his misgivings, Jay is intrigued, so they go to meet the client (Chariots of Fire‘s Struan Rodger). Seems simple enough: three murders, no questions asked, for an unthinkable sum of money. The first one makes very little sense, but it’s quick and easy. The second starts putting the pieces together, and Jay, once he figures out the connection between the three victims, starts off on his own tangent…
…absolutely none of which has to do with the horror element, really, though all of it does, in murky ways that I can’t address without going deep into spoiler territory here. It’s a decent movie, and I am certain I would have liked it better had I known what I was getting. The acting is, in general, quite good, though in a number of cases the actors are making the best they can out of mediocre material (did anyone buy the relationship between Jay and Shel? Really?), and the movie is excellently-paced once you figure out what Wheatley’s doing, or what you think he’s doing. Granted, it’s not The Wicker Man (or A Serbian Film, to which it has also been compared many times), but it does what it does and does so relatively well much of the time. But you’re probably better off knowing what you’re getting into. ** ½