What was particularly striking about Ben Wheatley's 2010 gangster pic Down Terrace was the manner in which it casually went about subverting the down-home naturalisms that have been a staple of the British film industry ever since Mike Leigh first hit stride - a natural progression of Wheatley's work on the flat-bound Johnny Vegas vehicle Ideal. Kill List similarly comes to branch out from this comfort zone, setting foot inside sterile corporate hotel suites before a fateful final-reel venture into the woods, and into the dark, yet its most hideous acts of violence are once more conceived - and, in one unforgettable instance, executed - around the dining-room table.
We open here on a dysfunctional nouveau riche household - a bluff Iraq veteran (Neil Maskell) and his Swedish trophy wife (MyAnna Buring), introduced in the middle of an argument ("How many scatter cushions do you fuckin' need?") that never really seems to end - in the run-up to a fraught dinner party. There are ominous signs throughout this unhappily banal event, like the black cat left to roam the table after the hosts' latest fractious row clears the room, or the fact the guests are Michael Smiley, the Irish hitman with childcare issues in Down Terrace, and Emma Fryer, the siren-like Tanya from Ideal, who excuses herself before dessert is served to scratch what looks like an occultist symbol on the back of the bathroom mirror. (Why she does this will prove one of the film's enduring mysteries.) Maskell and Smiley, it transpires, are not just best mates, but hired assassins, whose latest contract - signed, in an unexpectedly melodramatic flourish, in blood - turns out to be their oddest one yet: ticking off a list of individuals who appear to be united only by their apparent relief upon seeing the killers on their doorstep. As though death itself were a relief. As though they were expecting far, far worse.
Important to note, first of all, and in the light of the runaway success of the strictly 4:3 Inbetweeners movie, that Wheatley's is a properly widescreen aesthetic, as indeed it always was. With the aid of superlative tech credits - not least some razor-sharp switchback editing (credited to Wheatley, his aptly named wife and co-writer Amy Jump and Down Terrace's Robin Hill) and a sinister sound wash (care of Martin Pavey) as effective as any I've experienced in 2011 - the film skilfully negotiates those weird moodshifts common to Ideal, where you never knew who was coming to the door next; Wheatley pulls off the shock of the year in one kill scene by abandoning the expected editing strategy and relying on the viewer's eyes - or, perhaps better, their conscience - to make a cut a film as uncompromising as this isn't in this instance prepared to make.
The writing never quite pulls it together, but somewhere in here is a consideration of notions of "good" and "evil" that would appear to tie in to the traumatic legacy of the Iraq conflict: the assassins' progress will take in both a tableful of happy-clappy Christians and a woman described by one of the pair, not entirely inaccurately, as "a demon in bed", and somehow Wheatley gets us to side with the killers, in part because their banter and rough-housing of one another feels like the most normal aspect of the film. There's an undeniable boldness in the pursuit - a welcome willingness to take chances, to proceed in unusual directions even within the same sixty seconds of screen time, risking the sympathies (even the wrath) of the audience who've happily gone along with the ride up to this point: whatever Kill List's strengths or weaknesses, it's unmistakably the work of a talent insistent on forging his own path, and the very opposite of committee filmmaking.
The strengths are immediately apparent: to succeed in taking us with him, Wheatley needed everyone to be pulling together, and the film is, from first frame to last, an ensemble piece, even as its narrative condemns its characters to isolation. Maskell, who's slimmed down and grown up since his podgy comic-relief turn in The Football Factory, does a nice line in understated blokishness that gives way to blunt, semi-exhausted explosions of rage; against him, Wheatley locates notes of brittle privilege and tenacity in Buring that other lowish-budget productions (The Descent, Lesbian Vampire Killers, City Rats, which is something of a descent in itself) have thus far missed. Most encouraging of all is that this filmmaker should, this early in his career, have stumbled upon a performer as talismanic as Smiley, an actor with a real knack for evoking shabby malevolence, even as he earns the kind of laughs Kill List badly needs just to keep us watching.
The weaknesses emerge only belatedly, and by then you may be too hooked to care: having exhausted all other generic options, the film's third act strays into an area that will be familiar to scholars of British genre cinema (Buring's Swedishness may be the key), with traces of The Last Exorcism and the point-and-shoot aesthetics of such console games as Doom - in short, it gets explicable, when so much of its opening hour is oneiric and inexplicable, and all the more unsettling for that. Less a sleek thrill ride than a darkly bucking bronco, Kill List risks throwing you off at almost every point: it's not an easy film to synopsise, or watch, or - one suspects - for its director to have to follow up. But it is, for the most part, suspenseful and genuinely eerie: further evidence of what a highly accomplished filmmaker Wheatley is developing into.
Kill List is on nationwide release.