Unpleasant and unsettling, Ben Wheatley's Kill List is a forerunner of True Detective with less charismatic leads. Gloomy foreboding infects the film from frame one, which is a symbol being drawn in chalk on a black background. As scratchy sound effects accompany each line or shape, the symbol acts as a Sword of Damocles, dangling over the film and ready to consume the characters at any moment. In making a horror film about hitmen in over their heads, Wheatley has wildly succeeded at capturing a mood of encroaching disaster, though his and Amy Jump's script lacks larger impact due to the sheer detestability of the characters. After yet another screaming match or act of bullying, the forces behind that symbol can't catch up to everyone fast enough.
After the creepy, simple prologue, Kill List starts normally enough, with a husband and wife arguing about money. Jay (Neil Maskell) has been out-of-work for months, and it's wearing on his small family. Conversations with his wife Shel (MyAnna Buring) devolve into conflagrations. His young son Sam (Harry Simpson) calls his father lazy. A dinner party with former coworker Gal (Michael Smiley) erupts into animosity after a cutting remark by Shel. During a break in the fighting, Gal presents Jay with the solution to his problems; a lucrative new job has been presented to him. Despite his continued agitation with how badly the last job went, Jay accepts, taking Gal up on his offer to kill men for money. While this is happening, Gal's girlfriend is upstairs in the bathroom, planting the opening symbol in an out-of-the-way place and pocketing some bloody tissues. The dinner party is suddenly much more cordial.
That Kill List has a dark ending is fitting and appropriate for how repulsive its characters are. Jay is a roiling volcano, ready to erupt at everyone he encounters in the film, from his family to complete strangers. That he's also a charmless killer for hire is almost secondary to what a misanthrope he is. Shel is perfectly knowledgeable about what her husband does for a living, and has no qualms about it. This reframes her earlier urgings for him to go to work, the shrewish, nagging wife arguing for not just her financial well-being, but for the snuffing out of other people so that her moderately comfortable life can continue. Gal is more weathered, taking little joy in his work but doing it anyway. The inability of the film to humanize its characters thus puts plot first, such that the viewer is not wishing for Jay's safety or escape but is instead just waiting to see what happens next.
Atmospherically, Kill List is perfectly attuned to the slow-motion train wreck happening onscreen. The passengers on that train, however, are too vile to invest in. The sadistic final scenes confirm that Wheatley's film, though memorable and occasionally thrilling, is an exercise in misery. C+