The nasty things in life

Here’s a film I’d like to recommend, but I can only do so with a warning. The low-budget British horror-thriller Kill List, the follow-up to even-lower-budget crime chamber piece Down Terrace from one-to-watch Ben Wheatley, is easily the most exciting film released this week. Nothing else touches it. In fact, the Disney-produced, all-star, 15-certificate, big-budget horror remake, Fright Night 3D, shrivels to nothing next to it. Fright Night has some shocks, and some fancy effects, and some “Boo!” moments (none of which made me jump), but Kill List has a sense of dread that is maintained from one end to the other. And that’s much harder to cook up.

I didn’t catch Down Terrace, but I remember reading a lot about it. If it’s anything like this, stylistically, it won’t be everybody’s cup of tea. Kill List starts out – as every other critic has spotted, but it’s true – like a Mike Leigh drama, with a hellish dinner party going off the rails. This is uncomfortable enough. But when the two male characters, Jay (Neil Maskell) and Gal (Michael Smiley), are revealed to be professional contract killers, their domestic lives become all the more charged. They take on a lucrative job, which involves a list of three people they must kill, and their friendship is sorely tested by what ensues. It’s effectively a thriller that turns into horror, but it’s best you don’t know quite how, as I didn’t, and it makes the third act all the more explosive.

It’s sly and witty, and at the same time, often unbearably tense and brutal. The script, written by Wheatley and his wife Amy Jump, has been enhanced by improvisation from the four main leads, and it helps to underpin the realism. Its strength lies in the believability of Jay and Gal’s relationship, so when the cracks appear, we know what’s at stake: years of mutual support and empathy. They understand each other, and we understand them. They are not the cartoon, superfly hitmen of Tarantino’s hyperreal universe; they are two blokes getting on with their work. When they steal shampoos from a hotel, it’s humorous, but also entirely credible. Of course they would. Who wouldn’t?

Maskell and Smiley (with whom I used to work on Channel 4’s Naked City in the early 90s) are first rate. Though there are conventional thriller elements at play here – the jeopardy that spreads from their professional lives into their private lives – the destination is anything but predictable. Much of it is confusing, although Wheatley insists it fits together if you look at all the clues. I’ll have to watch it again. And you should watch it, too. Except …

You might not enjoy it. It contains “very strong bloody violence” according to the BBFC. They’re not joking. There is one scene, in particular, that almost turned my stomach. It had me trying to look away from the screen – and, naturally, being drawn to turn back and face it. This is not a film with a big special effects budget, but it’s been done brilliantly and resourcefully, such that the violence is horrifically, noisily real. This is not cartoon violence. This is messy. And ugly. I was surrounded by jaded, seasoned film critics at a screening this week, and after the scene in question ended, you could hear a mass exhalation, a mix of relief and exhaustion.

So I can’t recommend it, unless you have a strong stomach. I got through it. You might prefer not to watch a film that you have to get through.

I have seen the nasty bits in all the main nasty films, from the bit where the guy gets his head smashed in on the marble steps at the start of Wild At Heart to the act of self-harm in Antichrist, and in many ways, I wish I could wipe them from my mind. I can’t. I sort of admire filmmakers for having the power to do this. But I have always been forewarned, and ignored the warning, so I’m warning you now, pansies, so you can ignore me.

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3 thoughts on “The nasty things in life

  1. I managed to catch ‘Down Terrace’ at the ICA last year.Very low-budget, vary dark, and very funny.I’d go so far as to use the words ‘underrated gem’.And some great acting all round, including Robert Hill, Julia Deakin, and the aforementioned and wonderfully coiffured Smiley.

  2. I saw this film some while ago, a friend is the producer and I and a couple of others got a sneak preview and it has stayed with me, nay haunted me ever since.There was stunned silence and genuine shock from the small gathering who saw it when the end titles rolled, Great review Mr Collins it echoes a lot of my thoughts about the film. You would do well to make the time to catch Down Terrace as well, it is another genuinely funny and unsettling film.

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