(SPOILER ALERT: DO NOT READ THIS POST IF YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW WHO ENDS UP KILLING WHOM)
[Now, at long last, for a bust of a movie currently on release that will terrify and mystify you in equal measure.]
Kill List (2011) is a British horror movie co-written and directed by Ben Wheatley, starring Neil Maskell, Michael Smiley and MyAnna Buring.
In the end, not only is ex-soldier Neil Maskell forced into the mercy shooting of his best friend and contract killing accomplice, Michael Smiley, but he is also tricked into murdering his own wife, MyAnna Buring, and their young son.
Simmering domestic and marital tension boils over between husband and wife, Maskell and Buring, during a dinner party they throw for family friend, ex-comrade-in-arms and current business partner, Smiley and his latest girlfriend, who mysteriously excuses herself partway through the meal in order to secretly score an occult symbol on the back of a mirror in the couple's upstairs bathroom.
Smiley eventually manages to broker peace between the feuding pair, once he has reassuringly put their worried son back to bed after their antics disturb his sleep.
Before the evening is over, Smiley discusses with Maskell in private the prospect of a well paid hit-man job for the pair of them, a possibility he had apparently already raised with Buring, which would solve the couple's money worries, one of the causes of their rowing.
With Buring's endorsement, Maskell is persuaded into the deal, which is sealed in blood when Maskell's hand is unexpectedly and deliberately lacerated by the mysterious lone client that he and Smiley meet in a suite of an eerily empty hotel in order to receive their instructions. The well dressed man seems aware not only of the pair's reputation as killers but also inexplicably of some traumatic incident in Kiev some eight months previously involving Maskell, which was the last time he had worked, and the proceeding from which he and his wife have been living off since.
Much to the chagrin of the god fearing Smiley, the first of their three victims turns out to be a priest, whose body they dispose of in an incinerator after Maskell has dispatched him with a bullet to the back of the head in his vestry after morning service. Smiley is further unnerved by the priest's apparent gratitude for their actions, which Maskell explains away as some sort of release from a guilty burden.
What that burden might have been becomes clearer, when the pair break into a lock-up warehouse from which they see their second target emerging, and discover a collection of homemade dvds depicting what they take to be real scenes of such murderous sexual depravity that Smiley cannot bare to watch them and which tip Maskell into such a blind fury that when the pair catch up with their target at his home, he has no qualms about subjecting the so-called librarian to brutal torture in order to extract details of who else is involved in their production.
During a break in the man's ordeal, while Smiley is absent emptying the contents of their victim's safe, Maskell is perplexed to discover that the man is also aware of his exploits in Kiev and is not only an admirer but, like the priest, strangely grateful for what Maskell is about to do to him. Having heard enough, Maskell sets about him with a claw hammer, making sure that he suffers terribly before eventually stoving his head in.
Having been made to clean up the mess he was responsible for, Maskell is adamant that the pair of them should pay the person named under torture a visit without further delay. Despite Smiley's disgust at his friend's loss of control and misgivings about his desire to widen their remit, he reluctantly agrees to keep lookout while Maskell investigates the address they were given.
Wondering what can be taking his friend so long, Smiley, shotgun in hand, follows Maskell's route into the building site, on his way discovering a dead night-watchman and guard-dog before finding Maskell in the process of stoving yet another victim's head in against a brick wall, oblivious to the time he has so far taken.
Now seriously worried by his friend's unprofessional approach to their task, Smiley begins to doubt whether Maskell is fit to complete the job they have taken on and so delivers him back home to Buring, where Maskell discovers his wife entertaining Smiley's supposed girlfriend, whom Smiley claimed had dumped him and who Maskell thought he had spotted stalking the pair during their killing mission.
While at home, Maskell discovers that his lacerated palm has caused a widespread infection and is persuaded by Buring to seek medical attention from their family doctor. However, Maskell cannot understand why the replacement doctor he is forced to see is less interested in treating his infection and more interested in investigating his marital relationship while offering advice about forgetting the past and embracing the future?
Meanwhile Smiley is alarmed to discover that a file of documents he took together with the cash from the librarian's safe contains surveillance photographs of him and Maskell trailing their first victim. Wanting to have nothing more to do with the job, the pair try to persuade their client to accept replacement killers that they can arrange and personally vouch for. But the client, this time accompanied by heavies and a number of other smartly dressed associates, is adamant that the pair will fulfil their obligation or they and their families will themselves be murdered.
Unnerved by this turn of events, despite her military background, Buring decides to take their son to the safety of their holiday home in the country, while Maskell and Smiley finish the contract.
Gaining access via an underground tunnel to the grounds of the palatial country estate of the third target on their list, a politician, the pair set up a makeshift camp in some woods from which they intend to stalk their victim.
Taking cover for the night, the pair's sleep is disturbed by the sound of chanting, which they discover is coming from a procession of torch bearing individuals passing close by, a few of whom are naked, the rest being mostly in white robes, the majority having their faces hidden behind masks made from straw.
They track the group at a distance through the woods to a temporary gibbet set up on the far side of a lake, where one of their number, a woman wearing a dress made from bank notes, proceeds to hang herself for the entertainment of the applauding onlookers.
Appalled by proceedings, Maskell opens fire on the crowd with a high powered rifle. But instead of fleeing, the crowd advances threateningly on the pair's position despite being mown down by gunfire, forcing Maskell and Smiley to bolt for cover.
Hoping to make their escape through the tunnel that lead them into the grounds in the first place, the pair find that their exit has in the meantime been bricked up. While Smiley uses his shotgun to hold off their pursuers, Maskell breaks through the blocked tunnel, only to have to deal with yet more occultists attempting to outflank them.
Having secured an escape route, Maskell returns for Smiley, only to find his friend has been overwhelmed and mortally wounded. Realising there is no hope for him, Smiley begs his friend to dispatch him, which Maskell reluctantly does.
Fleeing to the sanctuary of his holiday home, Maskell realises too late that he has only lead his pursuers to his wife and child.
With the tyres of their vehicles slashed, the couple find themselves trapped. So while Maskell sets out into the night to bring the fight to their enemy, Buring loads up a pistol and prepares to use all her military skills to protect herself and their son.
Maskell does his best in the dark, but is eventually knocked unconscious.
He comes round to find himself corralled by applauding occulists who reveal themselves to include, amongst others, the client, his associates and the dead Smiley's weird girlfriend.
A blade is thrust into Maskell's hand and he it pitted against a knife-wielding cloaked hunchback, who he dispatches to the delight of the crowd.
Only then does Maskell discover with muted shock that he has in fact killed Buring and their son, who had been strapped to her back under the cloak.
If this plot bust seems to end a bit abruptly, it is only because that is exactly how the film ends. And whereas it is always a good idea not to reveal too much and leave your audience asking questions and wanting more, it is another thing entirely to leave them so completely in the dark that they come out of the cinema (as they did on the night I saw the movie) asking "Is that it? Is that all there is?"
At one point during proceeding the client reveals that the motive for the contract killings is to precipitate regime change, which suggests that some sort of power struggle is occurring within the occultists' group. And the awe in which members of the group seem to hold the Maskell character seems to suggest he is to become their new 'angel of death'. But really, the plot is so loosely tied up, it is not hard to be left wondering what on Earth you have just been watching.
Having said that, the performances are never anything less than totally convincing. The dialogue is razor sharp, and the fact that the script does not rely on some supernatural creature or force to effect its horror, which is at times truly horrific, is to be commended. Rarely has British horror, or, for that matter, that from the States, been so convincingly realistic and terrifying. Just don't expect to understand exactly what any of it is about.