Film Threat Review: Kill List

2011 SXSW FILM FESTIVAL SXFANTASTIC SELECTION
Unrated
90 minutes

*****

Ben Wheatley’s first film, “Down Terrace,” was fantastic. But one great film does not an extraordinary director make. With the submission of “Kill List” as his sophomore effort, I think it’s safe to say that this guy is something special. As a critic and a genre fan, I wade through a lot of mediocre films searching for the ones that remind me why I fell in love with horror in the first place. I rarely feel so elated walking out of a theatre as I did leaving “Kill List.” Now that, my friends, is a fucking movie.

“Kill List” begins much the same way as “Down Terrace,” in familial territory. Except something violent and sinister is behind these otherwise archetypal squabbles. Jay (Neil Maskell) and Shel (MyAnna Buring) are married with a young son. They’ve been experiencing cash flow problems and anger management issues ever since Jay was injured “on the job” in Kiev. When longtime confidant and partner, Gal (Michael Smiley, “Down Terrace” and “Spaced”) brings his new girlfriend over for dinner one night, they witness some (at times amusing) spousal nitpicking that leads to Jay abruptly clearing the table. After the dust settles and the wine continues to flow, Gal takes the opportunity to entice Jay back to work. The job is contract killing and the money is good.

We soon learn that this isn’t the first time at the hitman dance for either of these men. This information does little to blight them. After all, the guys their clandestine employers have tasked them to snuff have done bad things. “Just for the record,” justifies Jay, “I’ve hardly done any terrible shit.” Be that as it may, something happened in Kiev that has kept Jay out of work. It has also led to a wee dependence on painkillers and a deep-seeded resentment of Christianity.

As they make their way through the titular list, Jay and Gal start to realize this job has some pretty enormous strings attached. It’s so much fun finding out what those strings entail at relatively the same pace as our protagonists, that I really hope people manage to avoid spoilers. That’s not so easy to do these days.

The performances in “Kill List” are terrific all around. Neil Maskell moves effortlessly between bitter and despondent-yet-devoted family man to merciless assassin with a mounting vigilante streak. When he’s in the heat of the moment, Jay is not unlike Garth Ennis’ Punisher. He’s merciless and derives more than a little satisfaction from killing people he deems “the bad guys.” He’s not content to just put a nice tidy bullet in the victim’s head either, opting instead to bash skulls and faces into a gruesome pulp. Michael Smiley is beautifully adept at playing the thoughtful gangster with a glint of mischief behind his eyes. MyAnna Buring (“The Descent”) brings a rare humanizing complexity to the standard role of the nagging wife. By the time the blood starts flowing, the characters have shown such warmth, passion and familiarity toward one another that you root for them even as their body count rises.

It’s difficult to tell how much of the film was scripted because the performances are so natural. Nonetheless, co-writers Wheatley and Amy Jump certainly deserve praise for creating some very real, intensely compelling characters. Cinematographer, Laurie Rose, uses the realism of the hand-held camera to suck us right into their lives, whilst managing to maintain a lovely cinematic look. The presence of a serendipitous rainbow doesn’t hurt. This look is something that Steven Soderbergh has been trying to achieve for years.

I hesitate to divulge anything more because it’s best to experience “Kill List” as a fly on the wall. There are clues planted along the way but there is little chance you’ll guess the exact ending unless you’ve been spoiled. You’ll likely wish to revisit the film to spot everything you may have missed. Still, I don’t think it’s fair to call the ending a twist. Wheatley isn’t M. Night Shyamalan. He’s not trying to trick you. He’s just following the all-important, yet frequently broken narrative rule: Show, don’t tell. By the time you’ve figured out what’s going on, it’s not so much a surprise as a revelation. That’s a much more rewarding experience than being duped.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct). 

Film Threat Review: Surrogate Valentine

2011 SXSW FILM FESTIVAL EMERGING VISIONS SELECTION
Unrated
74 minutes

**

“Surrogate Valentine” is exactly the sort of movie you hope to avoid at film festivals. It’s a vanity project wrapped in a distracting, meaningless black and white package. It’s clear director Dave Boyle intended to jump on the Mumblecore bandwagon but it lacks the realism and effortless wit usually found in the genre. The dialog dips into rom-com cringe-worthiness and the sentimentality feels forced. Why do film festivals insist on programming these self-important wankfests? When will this madness end? Won’t someone please think of the children?

The story follows a musician named Goh Nakamura (played by Goh Nakamura), who is basically a portly Asian Lloyd Dobbler without the eloquence and good taste in music. The character is based tightly on an Asian singer/songwriter named Goh Nakamura. There’s also a Goh Nakamura in the writing credits. I’m guessing they’re related. Anyway, this struggling John Mayer-type agrees to let a quasi-famous Hollywood actor, Danny, shadow him for the purposes of role research. Danny accompanies Goh as he passively peddles his acoustic wares up and down the West Coast. Meanwhile, Goh reconnects with an old flame and passively attempts to win her back.

In the context of the film, as well as the film-within-a-film, Goh Nakamura is meant to be a sensitive genius and an object of desire. In fact, his awful music and lame jokes win women over so frequently that he can afford to ignore their advances. But the truth is that Goh Nakamura is a contender for the least appealing hipster of all time. He sports the hoodie and tie look without a hint of irony. He moves through the world quietly, attempting to appear deep, but coming off as boring at best.

The movie-within-a-movie is supposed to be bad. Danny plays it like a mincing emo Buddy Holly. Goh’s lame ballads provide the soundtrack for both films, implying that his songs are too beautiful for a Hollywood movie. It’s actually the other way around. A sample lyric: “Your suitcase is by the door/Your carry-on will carry on/Like a baby”. There’s a titular song too. Really.

It gets worse. Goh is the less annoying half of this buddy flick. Danny follows Goh around with a smug, actory demeanor, wildly gesticulating as he imparts platitudes onto his romantically challenged tutor. Like many actors, he has a mediocre Christopher Walken impression and he utilizes it as often as possible, claiming it helps him learn his lines.

The film is shot on HD, but the arbitrary black and white filter gives the picture a flat, dull look. Seattle and San Francisco are lush, beautiful places, but Boyle manages to make them look utterly unremarkable. Even iconic locations like Gas Works Park, Golden Gate Park and The Space Needle stood out only because of they’re hackneyed shorthand properties.

If there’s any redeeming quality to “Surrogate Valentine,” it’s that I see what they tried to do there. This is the sort of movie that gives Mumblecore a bad reputation. Dave Boyle doesn’t seem to realize that you don’t actually have to make your characters mumble.

Originally posted on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).