Adventures In Celluloid

Film critic Dominic Corry celebrates, clarifies and justifies his love for all things film.

Dominic Corry: Director Ben Wheatley on the ambiguities of Kill List

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A scene from Kill List.
A scene from Kill List.

As I have repeatedly articulated in this blog, I freaking love the 2011 movie Kill List. So when I got the chance to interview that film's director Ben Wheatley about his new movie Sightseers (opening on Boxing Day), I was very excited to interrogate him about the often maddening ambiguities of Kill List.

For the uninitiated, Kill List starts off as low key drama about two English ex-army pals who take on some hitman work. But then it takes some pretty wild turns. I won't be getting into any plot spoilers here, and there are plenty of theories floating around the web about the film's possible meaning, literal or otherwise.

But what impressed me most about Kill List is how it reveled in its own ambiguities, and how much more powerful that made the film. Genuine surprise is a very rare commodity in modern cinema, but I spent the last twenty minutes of the film with my mouth agape, and I'm still not entirely sure what I was watching.

I saw the film at its first public screening during the 2011 Frightfest Horror Film Festival in London. Wheatley was in attendance, and I'll never forget how he got up on stage after the credits rolled to do a Q and A about the film and immediately announced to a crowd still stunned by the movie: "I ain't explainin' a fookin' thing!".

He clearly wanted the films ambiguities to be left unspoken, but I was curious to know if in his mind, the story actually had an underlying reality, or if it was intended to simply exist in the eye of the beholder, like Mulholland Dr. or the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I was too sheepish to ask the question on the night of the screening (Simon Pegg was in the seat next to me. I was nervous) so I leapt at the chance to put it to him during our phone coversation of a few weeks back.

So. Is there a literal truth to be discerned in Kill List?

"Oh yeah, there is!" Wheatley told me. "There's a total logical throughline to it. I've found websites where they've pulled it to pieces and they've found every reference and they've got everything as we imagined it. We didn't just throw it together like a dream logic thing. We thought about it all and we planned it all. Otherwise you'd just get totally lost - you wouldn't know where to weight it. It would be really difficult to make a film like that."

But Wheatley says he would never articulate exactly what that truth is.

"If I say it, then everybody starts hitting each other over the head with it, or they start pulling the film apart and saying 'Oi you didn't do that!'"

Do people often ask him to explain the movie to them?

"Yeah. It's a general question about it because it is ambiguous. It carries on from the method that we had in Down Terrace where we cut all the exposition out of it because it was boring. It's the drama and the feeling you have when you watch that is more interesting than the actual dull plot stuff. For that, you can watch TV, that explains everything. To me, these films aren't that complicated, there's questions in them that are hard to answer. But when you're seeing the movie from the point of view of the characters, they wouldn't know these things, so why should you?"

Makes sense! And Wheatley has revealed a remarkably efficient way to make your film seem more mysterious - simply cut out all the exposition.

The director isn't overly concerned about everybody "getting" the movie, however.

"There's different readings of it on different levels - it's a B-movie, a straight-to-DVD title on one level. But on another level it's kind of arty film full of allusions and imagery. So you can see it in those two contexts. But I mean it's called Kill List, it's not called some kind of long artistic title. So on one level you can buy it at a petrol station and it's got a picture of two guys with guns on the front - and it is that movie, it's about hitmen versus Satanists, that's true. But on another level it's dealing with how a country comes to terms with itself after being involved in loads of illegal wars."

Now we're getting to the grit.

"The thing I was thinking about a lot while I was making it was 'How did the Germans feel during the World War II, up until the point when they lost?' They probably felt pretty good about themselves, but everybody else was against them. Every country at war feels like that. You send your soldiers out to do stuff and they better be doing it for the right reason or you're damaging them psychically in a way. Their moral framework is completely wrecked.

"I always thought with these guys [in Kill List] - they've gone from the point-of-view of doing something that was sanctioned by a government, which is okay morally, but then it wasn't. Legally it doesn't quite fit, but they're doing it anyway. Then they come back and become contract workers, mercenaries and security force people, and that's kind of the same thing they were doing but slightly stepped to the left because they're now working commercially. Then they become hired killers - is it the same? They're being paid to use their skills to kill people, which is just what they were doing in the Army. But now they're murderers - how did that happen? It's the difference between those three positions and that's kind of what Kill List is about. And then obviously, they're the most dangerous people you could meet but then they meet even more dangerous, horrible people and how do they sit with that?"

So there you have it. Sort of. I was very happy with Wheatley's answers to my questions - he allows for multiple interpretations of the film, but it's satisfying to know that the actual literal truth of it all lies in his head.

Wheatley's one of the most exciting young directors working today, and it's going to be fun watching his career unfold.

Seen Kill List? Agree with Wheatley's comments about it's metaphorical meanings? If you haven't seen Kill List, why the hell not? Comment below!

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