“Beneath its organs it senses there are larvae and loathsome worms, and a God at work messing it all up or strangling it by organizing it.”
—Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari,
Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia
Once, a long time ago, the director only needed a train to terrify his audience. Soon enough, audiences got hip to the whole artifice thing and the image alone was no longer enough. One history of cinema is the history of finding novel ways to scare a group of people sitting in the dark. The Germans perfected the terror of shadows. Lewton and his ragtag crew used silence as a weapon. In the ’70s, the Italians had their sickly, acrid colors, and the Americans their uncomfortable lack of distance between the mundane and the brutal. As horror moved from the early possibilities to these latter presences, it kept on refining its narrative tropes until they became something soft and comfortable. Today, it seems very nearly impossible to be genuinely scared by a contemporary horror film, their continued box office draw stemming from being, along with the romantic comedy, the most reliable source of genre mechanics around.
It’s no surprise then that the most effectively terrifying films today are those that work resolutely outside of the realm of genre: the obsessive search for a knowledge that can’t be found in Fincher’s Zodiac (2007); the ruined dreams of Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006); the parade of catastrophe that opens Godard’s Notre musique (2004). Kill List, the second feature by British director Ben Wheatley, stands as the only film working in the orbit of genre that I find genuinely horrifying, and profoundly so.
Its set-up is simple: Two guys, Jay and Gal, middle-class military pals since involved in shadier dealings, saddle up for another assignment following an oft-referred-to-but-never-explained mishap in Kiev eight months prior. Their assignment, received from a posh man in a posh hotel room, is to kill three men, identified via title cards as The Priest, The Librarian, and The MP. There are the obvious elements here for direct social engagement, and perhaps even didactic political filmmaking—The Priest, The Librarian, and The MP isn’t so far from the title of a film by Straub and Huillet, after all. But while Kill List is undoubtedly a political film, and a powerful one at that, its approach is so diffusely oblique that by the time one gets to its bewildering finale the comfort of partisan politics is as far gone as the comfort of horror’s generic conventions.
Though its ’Scope frame is used exclusively rather than expansively (cf. films by Lucrecia Martel, Giorgos Lanthimos), its conceptual framework is hysterically inclusive, dragging in ideas from everything this side of the musical. The chief effect of this quilted quality is a unique lack of orientation, mirrored by the frequent, inconsistent jump cuts that signify nothing beyond their lack of motivation. This is a good distance away from today’s trendy ambiguity, a tool of directors from Haneke to Nolan, which more often than not serves little more than to flatter the deductive or imaginative capabilities of its audience. Each event in Kill List is presented clearly and coherently; it’s the connective tissue—that thing we call narrative—that’s broken down and left us with facts that are no longer productive of meaning: In short, it’s the horror, both visceral and moral, of our world stripped bare of the stories that we tell and accept to allow ourselves to go on living comfortably in spite of it.
The film’s first 30 minutes are tense chamber drama and a series of domestic disputes—about a hot tub, toilet paper, etc.—leading to a dinner party, given by Jay and his Swedish wife Shel for Gal and his girlfriend Fiona (who works in human resources, where she fires people for a living), that’s a mix of small talk and explosive anger, eventually ending with everyone happy and Fiona carving a symbol onto the back of the hosts’ mirror before stuffing a bloodied tissue into her bra. This moment, which comes abruptly out of a pop-scored scene of playfulness, sets in motion an anti-narrative that constantly stymies itself only to begin again immediately elsewhere. The paths between events reside in varying registers of narrative logic: when Jay’s disgust at a horrible, presumably violent, pornographic video leads him to forego the casual professionalism of the first murder in favor of Old Testament blood lust (in the form of the now infamous moment of nastiness with a hammer and some subsequent brutality of a slightly less spectacular fashion), it’s not difficult to understand his motivations. When the last 20 minutes erupt into a frenzy of pagan ritual, it’s less obvious exactly why any of this is occurring. Certain events recur—Jay’s victims thank him, Fiona begins showing up at sudden moments in his life—but Wheatley maintains a real inconsistency, of both form and content (aided by the wild swings in Jim Williams’s score), that can look a lot like incoherence, but achieves precisely the opposite: the creation of a work of art that works outside the haze of comfort, the obscuring quality of narrative fulfillment that cinema has long shown us can be used to smuggle in just about anything.
The openness that Wheatley achieves is paradoxically both oppressive and liberating: it creates a sense of unease with regard to the next moment while it allows one to simply accept what is in front of one without searching for narrative justifications. Its ostensibly shocking ending is foreshadowed in the most direct fashion imaginable—a shot from the film’s opening minutes quite literally duplicates the closing, with toy weapons substituted for real ones—but what can this matter when there can be no logical line drawn between the two events? Such devices of narrative filmmaking quite simply have no use here. Kill List, then, is best understood as a cine-machine built to fail: only when its parts stop whirring can they be seen as they truly are.