Kill List

We’re a good 20 minutes into “Kill List” before anything happens that could be cited as a clear, unmistakable example of nefariousness. But one of the things I love about the movie is that even before that — and after it, until more unambiguous darkness appears — there’s no question that Something Is Wrong. We feel it in the droning, atonal music that plays ominously in the background during seemingly ordinary moments, and in the way the characters are constantly on edge. Whatever is happening or is about to happen, it’s not good.

The setting appears normal enough, if a bit grim. Jay (Neil Maskell), a working-class Englishman, lives with his wife, Shel (MyAnna Buring), and 7-year-old son (Harry Simpson) in the dreary suburbs, unemployed in recent months and feeling the pinch of tight finances. Gal (Michael Smiley), a gregarious old friend of Jay’s from their days in the military, comes to visit with news of a potential job, bringing his girlfriend, Fiona (Emma Fryer), with him. Shel urges Jay to take the job. There is bitter arguing. (“You’re in serious danger of turning into a miserable cow,” Jay observes, certainly not the meanest words to pass between them in either direction.) Jay reluctantly tells Gal he’ll do the job.

What sort of work do Jay and Gal do? Well, the film is called “Kill List”; you can probably make a few inferences from that. I can promise you, though, that what unfolds is unlike any murder-for-hire movie you’ve ever seen. The brainchild of writer/director Ben Wheatley (whose “Down Terrace” was another grim, less twisted crime drama), “Kill List” gradually descends into sinister, disorienting madness. As it does, Wheatley keeps us off-balance by alternating between scenes of straightforward brutality, which are hard to watch but easy to understand, and moments of disquieting eeriness, which are easy to watch but hard to understand. Beating a man to death with a hammer is grotesque, but it’s logical. A man smiling and saying “thank you” as he’s about to be murdered … well, that’s disconcerting. The film’s last 20 minutes combine real and surreal into an insane climax of dizzying, what-the-hell-am-I-watching nightmares.

Woven throughout are hints of something larger and more insidious than a mere kill list. Jay demonstrates a more vicious temper than we’d realized. He encounters people who say odd things to him in odd situations, as when he sees a doctor for an injury to his hand and receives this diagnosis: “The past is gone. The future is not yet here. There is only ever this moment.” There seems to be some meaning in the types of people on the list, their professions boldly declared to us by onscreen titles.

I’ve seen the film twice and still wouldn’t swear that I understood exactly what has happened (though I have my theories). Some of that mystery is intentional; some may be due to my dumb American ears having a hard time cutting through the English and Irish accents, which are unusually thick. But more important than absolute clarity is the feeling, when it’s over, that you’ve experienced something profoundly unsettling. Wheatley accomplishes that goal with chilling accuracy.

A- (1 hr., 35 min.; R, abundant harsh profanity, some shocking brutal violence, some nonsexual nudity.)