Friday, August 2, 2013


Some genres, like crime and horror, have a relationship so symbiotic they intertwine like helical strands in cinema's DNA. Common cinematographic elements like low-key lighting and asymmetrical compositions have their origins in German Expressionism, a movement that shone chiaroscuro light on the macabre and the subaltern. There's a common patrimony for existential themes and oneiric logic in Franz Kafka's magic realism. The publication in 1978 of William Hjortsberg's novel Falling Angel saw a more reflexive blurring of stylistic boundaries, paving the way for a Satanic supervillain like Keyser Soze to invest Bryan Singer's crime film The Usual Suspects with Gothic menace.

Like Angel Heart, Alan Parker's 1987 adaptation of Hjortsberg's novel, the 2011 British thriller Kill List has its protagonist increasingly unhinged as he's drawn under the influence of dark conspiratorial forces. But director Ben Wheatley goes beyond noir pastiche in his pan-generical approach, rendering army veterans turned contract killers with contemporary verisimilitude. This stylistic conglomeration isn't a Loach-noir mash-up, nor a period piece as effective as Hjortsberg's rendering of the tropes and cadences of Raymond Chandler, but a strong contemporary story, stylistically multi-layered yet unified in effect. The film achieves a rare claustrophobic power for aligning social realism with a philosophical core of horror usually neglected in favour of genre conventions like giant monsters, sexy vampires or the ubiquitous living dead.

Neil Maskell's portrayal of hit man Jay builds on a menacing persona he started fashioning with Wheatley in the BBC comedy series The Wrong Door and further developed in Nick Love's The Football Factory (2004). In the great cinematic tradition of the baby-faced psycho, his boyish features act as a palimpsest for wounded expression, something prematurely aged and fractured lurking behind the eyes. (His portrayal of Arby in Dennis Kelly's conspiracy theory TV series Utopia is like a combination of Jay and a lobotomised office worker character from The Wrong Door. Another great character, but Maskell's in serious danger of being forever typecast as the psychotic hitman if he isn't careful.)

The film opens with Jay in the middle of a vicious dispute with his wife Shel (MyAnna Buring, an alumna of The Wrong Door). He's been unemployed for eight months and the family (Jay, Shel and son Sam) has gone through their savings. He says he's got a bad back; she says it's all in his mind. He could be any male provider in recession-hit Britain: worried about his occupational limbo and impending destitution, increasingly alienated from his family - a source of pressure as much love and support for him. His best friend and business partner Gal (Michael Smiley), a fellow Iraq War veteran, comes to dinner one night with new girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer) who's been told they're travelling salesmen. Shel, also ex-army, is the manager of what's really a contract killing operation. Their last failed mission in Kiev has sent Jay into a spiral of depression, probably the real cause of his job shyness. We never learn what happened there, but there are suggestions a child was killed. 

Jay is persuaded to return to work, but not without one last defiant outburst. As a response to Shel and Gal's jibes about his negligence of filial duty, he overturns his still food-laden plate on the dinner table and pulls the table cloth out with a sarcastic "Abracadabra!" Its childishly off-hand, almost unconscious aggression; a frightening revelation of Jay's mental instability. He's like a puppet of his own emotions. 

Their new client (Struan Rodger) knows about the Kiev mission and insists on sealing the contract with his and Jay's blood. Gal suspects they've been working for their new employers for some time under different guises when he discovers files in the homes of the hit targets containing information about their activities. There's an unreal contrast between the anonymity of the settings in which they go about their work and the targets' puzzling familiarity with Jay. All of them seem to welcome their deaths and thank Jay for the honour of being dispatched by him. 

These plot details create an atmosphere that unsettles exponentially, an affect complemented by Laurie Rose's cinematography; as hyperreal and skewed a perspective on Britain's urban and rural environments as the work of Rob Hardy, Igor Martinovic and David Higgs for the Red Riding trilogy. Deserted suburban landscapes, wind energy props lazily spinning, evoke Michelangelo Antonioni's cinema of alienation. A rainbow's arc spans the screen, radiating surreal menace. Wheatley incorporates other semiotics that act as clues to occult conspiracy, just as author Ira Levin and director Roman Polanski used the contemporary detail of the 1966 Time magazine 'Is God Dead?' cover in a doctor's waiting room to suggest a wider anomic milieu in Rosemary's Baby. In Kill List, there are intertitles for each of the hit targets - The Priest, The Librarian, The MP - that conjure up social archetypes and the nomenclature of Tarot cards. 

Aleister Crowley and Dennis Wheatley are often referenced when the film enters weird fiction territory, but there are more contemporary parallels. Horror writer Ramsey Campbell's black magic realism similarly encompasses paranoid schizophrenic revenge killers (The Face That Must DieThe Count of Eleven), evil cults (The ParasiteThe Nameless) and subliminal connections between urban decay and the supernaturalBritish genre filmmaker Philip Ridley's Heartless (2009) set out with a promisingly Campbellian mise en scene (the orange glare of sodium street illumination, graffiti-lined underpasses, nightmarish figures half-glimpsed in the windows of abandoned houses). But Ridley's preference for the played out trope of the Faustian bargain, territory better handled by Hjortsberg and Parker, felt like a betrayal of promise. Kill List is the most effectively Lovecraftian British film since Clive Barker's Hellraiser. Its hand-held realism reflects the assimilation of the American writer's documentary technique in the Blair Witch Project/Cloverdale/Quarantine/Apollo 18 'found footage' tradition. Its lingering connotative tension has a match in the atmospheric density that Campbell achieves in prose.
JK Potter's photomontage illustrations for Ramsey Campbell's The Face That Must Die

In his cultural survey Danse Macabre, Stephen King categorised H. P. Lovecraft as a writer of 'outside' horror': his mythopoetic pantheon of demonic Old Ones are vast, pan-dimensional beings, capable of destroying the human race in the fulfillment of some obscure agenda with far greater ease than we annihilate other terrestrial species in the pursuit of our interests. This tradition taps into fears of the unknown that are as old as the religious impulse itself. King contrasts this with the 'inside' horror of aberrant psychology as explored in the works of Thomas Harris; a literary sub-genre that stretches from Robert Bloch's Psycho to James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. 'Outside horror', in King's reading, deals with externalities over which the characters have no control and therefore needn't feel any complicity. 'Inside horror' deals more with moral issues of free will, the choice of evil over good. 

King has incorporated cosmic horror elements effectively in his own fiction, notably in 'The Mist' and It, but his Providence idol's oeuvre isn't suited for this critical dichotomy. Lovecraft wasn't just a fantasist, but also a 'deterministic materialist' whose grim universal stance was informed by evolutionary theory and space-time relativity. His protagonists don't just experience their horrors in the form of some transcendental Kantian Sublime, as Bradley Will has it, but realise them immanently as well, as Gilles Deleuze knew. For Lovecraft there is no clear separation between inside and outside, between subjective will and objective reality; they're attributes of the same materiality, its ultimate nature unknowable and utterly alien. 

The cult that manipulates Jay and Gal is either peopled by deluded adherents of a sociopathological neo-pagan groupthink or that belief system is real within the film's fictional borders. Jay's character is a dualistic synecdoche for political or supernatural influences. His exponential mental destabilisation can symbolise a parallax diffusion of power and violence, one of multidirectional volition and shifting agency, as well as a paranormal traversal of ontology. 

In Lovecraft and Campbell's fiction, supernatural force is more often than not intimated; the reader senses its influence in the description of setting or character behaviour rather than manifested in action. The only significantly magical element depicted in Kill List is the occult symbol that appears with the film's opening credits and drawn by one of the characters on the back of Jay's bathroom mirror. Nevertheless, there's a cosmic menace. Jay may be cracking up from a combination of psychological factors: lingering damage from wartime experience; whatever happened on the Kiev mission; financial pressures. But what manner of gateway is that symbol's harsh geometry intended to unlock?

Wheatley's bold lack of exposition allows the viewer to experience the characters' perspective and something of their predicament, pulled along by the undertow of circumstance and conspiratorial machination. Kill List's eerie sound design enhances this effect; there are moments of aural dislocation that recall another Warp Films production, Shane Meadows' Dead Man's Shoes. Sound keeps the film's vertiginous shifts in genre seamless, its tonal momentum organic. One of the recurrent motifs in Jim Williams' score is atonal whistling: a potent signifier of psychosis. For horror fans, its spookily evocative of the mad piping made by the acolytes of Azathoth, the blind idiot god - Lovecraft's metaphor for the random forces of evolution.  

Supernatural horror and political metaphor fuse in Kill List against a background of economic catastrophe, fertile ground for what Slavoj Žižek calls the 'parallax nature of violence.' In his Living in the End Times, the Czech philosopher argues "an economic crisis which causes devastation is experienced as uncontrollable quasi-natural power, but it should be experienced as violence." The GFC spreads waves of its own mutating brutality, just as an avalanche of social and political repercussions saw the Great Depression transform into World War Two. This metamorphosing energy can manifest in directionless criminal activity like the 2011 London summer riots. Or entrepreneurial offshoots of the shadow economy like Jay, Gal and Shel's contract execution business. Human resources specialist Fiona, a paragon of the official economy and all its bureaucratic dissemblance, tells them there's a lot of "dirty work" to be done in a recession. Gal jokingly calls her a "hatchet man", but she assures them there's nothing personal in her duties when out 'de-forcing'. Jay asserts it is nothing but personal for the families of the employees whose jobs she terminates. The fear of unemployment is raw for him, a personal abyss he doesn't dare stare into.

Jay's gradual absorption into a conspiracy of violence - his agency undermined by forces both seen and unseen - recalls the fate of Warren Beatty's investigative reporter in The Parallax View. The symbolic centrepiece of Alan J. Pakula's 1973 political thriller was a short film the undercover reporter has to watch as part of his training to become a corporate hitman. A semiotic montage of still photography and comic book panels depicts cycles of oppression and heroic vengeance. In a feat of symbolic paranoia beautifully reflective of the movie's fractious time, this film within a film is a psychic map of America: a deterritorialised maze of violent, ego-driven impulses. Hideous snuff pornography discovered in The Librarian's lock up seems intended to engineer a psychotic reaction in Jay. Gal has to look away, but Jay is transfixed, his tortured features twisting in the monitor's reflected light. He goes off-list to target the video's producers, triggered into action by a violent collective hatred of those who would disseminate such detestable material. There's a transition from helpless depression during his period of unemployment to increasingly unhinged retributive agency as working hitman. He justifies the act to Gal as rough social justice; but does he also need to redirect perverse feelings the video has provoked?

Camped out on the MP's estate as they prepare for their final hit, Jay sounds genuinely forlorn when he tells Gal he doesn't understand where the anger inside him comes from. Its a scene that registers as political metaphor for the internalisation of parallax violence, invisible until seen from the proper vantage point. It's also a signpost for the film's supernatural undercurrents, foreshadowed by the unsettling juxtaposition of childhood reverie and slow-motion flames as Jay and Gal dispose of the pornographers' remains. 

Casual political conversation during the dinner party implies a wider nexus of moral decay, of social progress set in reverse. In a discussion about the recession and 'de-forcing', Jay raises the Nazi regime's readiness to eliminate 'extraneous' social elements, foreshadowing his rationalisation of off-list activity. His isolation may be palpable, but in no way do we feel his are isolated views. Every parent can sympathise a little with his expressed desire to exterminate all child molesters. But there's phenomena conveyed within such a statement that offend liberal conscience: the 'taking out the trash' argument of right-wing vigilantism, the race-to-the-bottom moral posturing that passes for political debate by shock jocks or the virulent bigotry often visible in internet commentary; what sociologists call the online disinhibition effect in overdrive. A pervading sense emerges of a dystopian polity on the rise, poised to grant utilitarian equivalence to Jay and Gal's execution service and the death squads of police states. 

The Nazi reference also evokes, within the film's wider thematic structure, a mythology that evolved in the latter half of the twentieth century around the Third Reich's fusion of totalitarianism and the occult. First disseminated in Jacques Bergier and Louis Pauwel's The Morning of the Magicians, it's a popular trope in James Herbert's novel The Spear, Campbell's The Parasite and Spielberg and Lucas' Raiders of the Lost Ark. Politico-occult evocations reach their zenith in the pagan ceremony Jay and Gal discover on the MPs estate. The ritualistic hanging of a young woman dressed in pound notes carries echoes of the Californian occult site of Bohemian Grove, that obsession of radio host Alex Jones. For him the yearly gathering for the Sacrifice of Dull Care is a Luciferian ceremony, symbolising the freedom of political and financial elites from social conscience. 

The worldwide web's viral spiral amplifies a millenarian zeitgeist. The end-of-the-world scenario of Lars Von Trier's Melancholia (another cinematic highlight of 2011) reflected hysteria generated by Internet doomsday groups around Earth's orbital rendezvous with Planet X/Nibiru and the significance of December 21, 2012 in the Mayan calendar. Paranoid conspiracy theories about the Illuminati seem to underline Kill List's intimations of a corrupt elite exerting demonic control over an atomised society. 

Melancholia had its own transgression of outside and inside boundaries: Justine's misanthropic depression finds its wish-fulfillment in the titular planet's collision course with Earth. Apocalyptic denouement unfolded at a measured pace, the relativistic scale of cosmological force looming over family drama. Kill List's speedier narrative pacing and jump-cut editing suit an even darker eschatology. Psychological desolation hurtling through a serrated continuum of cinematic time. A nightmare plunge into a moral void something like Michel Houellebecq's crystallisation of Lovecraft's vision: the delineation of "universal laws of egoism and malice."

Wheatley, in writing and editing partnership with wife Amy Jump, is a filmmaker with considerable skill in being able to pull at several different affective strings in his viewer at once. It's this emotional dimensionality, exemplified in character ambiguity and wry humour, that keeps a bleak film like Kill List from being as dispiriting as the preceding exegesis might suggest. Jay and Gal may be a couple of murderous thugs, but they're also funny guys and as affectionate as their damaged psyches allow.

Canny musical choice is also integral to this director's method. Wheatley's cult cool credentials were boosted by the use of classic krautrock as extra-diegetic music in his next film Sightseers (the opening bars of Neu!'s 'Lieber Hoenig' as repeated motif and a kind of theme tune for one of the characters is an appealingly strange touch). Frankie Goes to Hollywood's 'The Power of Love' was used in a crucial moment with obvious ironic intent, but there's the hint of a romantic sensibility behind the jest. 

Joan Armatrading's 'It Could Have Been Better' plays on Kill List's soundtrack when Jay and Shel attempt to reconnect after the dinner party's ructions. It's an emotional ballad suitable for a film that up to this point has been a form of domestic drama. But this scene represents more than just a lull in marital conflict and the song takes on a powerful elegiac quality. It's a lament for England's social contract (a major theme as Wheatley and cast have emphasised) and for all its post-traumatic stress disordered war veterans and economic refugees. A moment of fragile, shared empathy, illuminating the movie's darkening psychological terrain with almost Gnostic intensity. 


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