Well, it's official: Ben Wheatley is Mike Leigh with a far bigger set of huevos. The man's naturalistic approach gave his directorial debut, 'Down Terrace,' a dark comedy about a crime family, surprising dramatic heft, and with his follow-up, 'Kill List,' Wheatley takes his filmmaking in even bolder directions.
Jay (Neil Maskell) hasn't worked in eight months, and his unemployment and general lack of social graces are taking its toll on his marriage to Shel (MyAnna Buring). His pal Gal (Michael Smiley) has an assignment, though, if Jay wants it -- local work this time -- and after a particularly heated dinner party, Jay decides that maybe getting himself out of the house and back into the swing of things would be for the best.
It seems fair to say that Jay and Gal happen to be hitmen, and that the "Kill List" of the title is their target roster; to reveal much more would be criminal, as it becomes steadily apparent that our two professionals may be in over their heads with this particular assignment.
The first act is such a matter-of-fact affair that it could take place in the same world as 'Terrace' did, as evildoers go about their daily routines, caring for their children and otherwise trying to maintain the illusion of home-bound happiness. The second act reveals their true natures, as these skilled individuals expertly dispatch their marks and find themselves shaken up by circumstances beyond their control. The violence here is unbearably realistic at times, visceral in a way that 'Terrace' never was nor had to be; make no mistake, the makeup team deserves top marks for their grisly wound work here.
It's easy to become invested in the leads as they continue on their downward trajectory. Maskell and Smiley effortlessly convey their characters' like-minded professionalism, and to see the latter show concern for the former's mounting insecurity and nigh-righteous anger only endears them further to us. This proves critical in the third act, where matters take what seems to be a hard left turn that has in fact been signposted throughout. The reveal would be a breeze to give up -- just making one simple comparison to another film would tip its hand -- but that would diminish its eventual impact and Wheatley's remarkably nimble efforts in getting his audience and characters to that point feasibly. (Amy Jump, who co-wrote the screenplay with Wheatley, deserves due credit as well for ramping up the mystery in effectively eerie ways.)
'Kill List' works, whether as a domestic drama, a hitman thriller or something more sinister than either of those. Its ambiguity may be a bit maddening, but the ensemble delivers uniformly gripping performances and it's directed with the sure hand of a man who knows precisely which corners of darkness he wants to take his audience.