October 2nd -- Kill List
What is the purpose of a horror film? Is the purpose to thrill with the fake threat of death, to live vicariously through victims on screen? Is it to allow the audience to experience the dark thrills of death and torture, to become the on-screen villain through first-person point-of-view? Is the purpose to warn us about a world that is harsh, unkind and brutal? Is it like agn amusement park ride: doling out adrenaline rushes in measured doses to those who normally live a dull, 9-5 life? Why, exactly, do we watch horror films?
I begin my review of "Kill List" with these philosophical questions for a good reason. I've just finished the movie and as I type this out, I find myself visibly shaking. This isn't a good thing. In fact, watching this film has actually forced me to question my life-long love of horror films in a way that has pushed the spotlight on myself. I've always searched for that ultimate horror film, that movie that defines what terror actually means to me, personally, and to the wider world in general. So far, i don't like the answers that I've come up with.
In a nutshell, the movie is about two best friends, Jay and Gal, who also happen to be hitmen. Jay is a family man, with a beautiful wife and loving young son. Gal is a happy-go-lucky Irishman, quick with a joke but possessed of a steely reserve that serves him well in his line of work. When we first meet our protagonists, Jay has been out of work for some time and the strain is showing on his home life. The first 30 minutes of the film is given over to establishing this tense domestic situation. If you were to turn it off after this, in fact, you would have seen a pretty decent drama and no one would fault you for that. In fact, you'd actually be a leg up on any of us that have seen the film. But...and I can say this with no small measure of self-assurance...you won't turn it off. You need to get to the horror, just like me. Stick around for the next hour and you'll get more than your fill.
Gal brings Jay another job, one last trip through the old hunting grounds to make some much needed cash. The client is strange and the job is even stranger: three separate kills, doled out one at a time. The first is a priest, the second is a librarian and the third is an M.P. They receive their next target after the previous one is finished. Getting out isn't an option: if they quit, their employer promises to kill them and their loved ones. There is no escape from the inevitable.
And that, my friends, is all the plot you get. You see, the "joys" of this film (and you would be right to read that as intense sarcasm) comes from the developing twists and turns in their journey. As they proceed deeper into their assignment (and into hell), Jay begins to crack: what he sees cuts to the core of his respectable family life and his own personal ethos. Gal continually assures him that this is just a job but we all know it's much more than that. This is a point of no return for everyone involved.
The film gradually ratchets up the tension, via an omnipresent and always ominous musical score, to the point where it's nearly unbearable. I spent the last 45 minutes of the film on the edge of my seat, not wanting to go any further but compelled to keep watching. This isn't a thrill ride or a way to release tension: this is the equivalent of watching a loved one hit by a train in slow motion. You can't look away, even though you desperately want to. The finale is so horrifying, so blackly destructive, that it can't help but change you. This is the filmic equivalent of a fast-acting sci-fi mutagen: you will be a different person when the credits roll. I'm not sure that you'll like that person, mind you, but you'll definitely be different.
I suppose that I should mention something about the style, about the actual film itself. The acting is impeccable, never less than 100% believable and real. The cinematography is beautiful, if a little herky-jerky. The film is edited almost exclusively with jump cuts, providing a truly jarring viewing experience. To get hyper-technical, the movie employees more L-cuts (sound from the following scene bleeding into the current scene) than I've ever seen before, sometimes for minutes at a time. The effect is to constantly keep the viewer off balance, always out of sync with what's going on. The violence, when it happens, is sudden and explicit: this isn't a B-grade zombie flick, with ripping flesh and exploding heads: this is real shit, the kind of thing you see at a murder scene.
But in the end, no matter how the rest of the movie hits you, you still have to get through the finale, the final ten minutes. I won't lie to you: I've always prided myself on seeing some of the rawest, ugliest films out there. I've seen "Cannibal Holocaust," which featured actual animal slaughter. I've seen virtually every torture-porn, zombie and serial killer film ever made. I've read Cormac McCarthy and Poppy Z. Brite. I'm pretty schooled on just about every way you can film the mutilation and destruction of a human body...and yet...
...this is something different. This is the destruction of the soul, of the very essence of being a human being. If the ending to the film doesn't lay you out flat, well...I'm more than a little worried about you. I don't feel ashamed for being this affected by a fictional film: more than anything, I think that it's reaffirmed my basic humanity. I remember seeing "7even" when it first came out in theaters. I went with a good friend on opening night and I remember seeing all of these happy couples in the theater, out for a Friday night date. By the time the credits rolled, no one was happy: everyone walked away not as hand-holding lovers, but as individuals. My friend and I didn't say anything to each other on the way out. "Kill List" is a hundred times more powerful than that.
So, at the end, I come back to my original question: what is the purpose of a horror film? If the purpose is to give a roller-coaster thrill ride, than "Kill List" fails miserably. If the purpose is to live vicariously through the violence of others, than the film likewise fails. If the intention of a good horror film, however, is to make you question everything you know, to explode the very definition of humanity, family and sanity, then "Kill List" may be the greatest horror film ever made. For those looking for some excitement on a Saturday night, I cannot recommend this film in any way, shape or form. If you want a good time, I suggest you choose another form of entertainment. If, however, you are willing and eager to fully examine the darkest reaches of humanity and, perhaps, yourself, than I invite you to take the ride. If the ending does not leave you shaking, hopeless and dreadfully alone, then I congratulate you, although I wouldn't want to spend any time with you. There is no hope in "Kill List" and precious little in the way of a good time.
If the sole purpose of horror films is to disturb and unsettle, then "Kill List" is the "Citizen Kane" of horror films. As far as I'm concerned, however, I want nothing more to do with the thing. Like "Cannibal Holocaust," one viewing is more than enough to tell me that I want to put as much distance between that world and mine as humanly possible.
Is "Kill List" a good film? It's an exceptional film, perhaps one of the very best ever made. Did I like it? In all honesty, I hated it: hated what it showed me, what it made me feel and what it made me see in the world. This may seem like a load of hyperbolic horseshit but take it from a life-long horror fanatic: "Kill List" is poisonous, albiet a pretty poison. I fully intended to watch two horror films tonight but I simply can'r bring myself to watch anything after this. "Kill List" may be the most perfect post-modern horror film ever made. And God help us all for that.