Sunday, 11 March 2012

Kill List

From the off director Ben Wheatley creates a very disturbing atmosphere in this film. It’s not just the dark subject matter that makes it such uncomfortable viewing. It’s just hard to tell where the story is heading.

Jay (Neil Maskell) and Gal (Michael Smiley) are a pair of soldiers-turned-hitmen. A mysterious client supplies them with the eponymous kill list - three targets - for which they are handsomely paid. They hit the road to take care of business and the job grows increasingly bizarre with each murder. As does Jay’s mental state.

This is an inventive cross-pollination of genres. What, effectively, starts as suburban drama in Jay’s family home takes a hop, step and then leap into the realms of weirdness. It’s all fantastically disconcerting. The acting is naturalistic and the dialogue authentic. The setting is not obviously cinematic. The protagonists’ tour of motorways and nondescript hotels under a consistently grey sky is unglamorous and unmistakably British. With many a colloquialism and national references (e.g. Jeremy Beadle) the script is uncompromising in its Britishness. This makes it all the more creepy – it simply feels very real. It’s not the prettiest of films and I couldn’t honestly describe any of it as “spectacle” but it does have an extremely unnerving mood throughout. It’s also built around a strong idea. Wheatley scripted the film with his wife, the appropriately-monikered Amy Jump, and generously credits the actors with Additional Dialogue due to the amount of improvisation.

For any budding film-makers this will undoubtedly serve as inspiration for what you can achieve on a shoestring. Impressively shot for just half a million quid Ben Wheatley proves that a good script is what counts the most. Well, that and good performances. Maskell is genuinely scary as the mindless thug struggling to hold it together and Smiley, who I’d previously only known as “Tyres” in Spaced achieves good chemistry with his best friend and brother in arms. Wheatley’s debut feature Down Terrace – a domestic tale of gangster life - was shot for an even more absurd figure (£6000, Wheatley claims). It’s a different kind of film but if you enjoy Kill List then I recommend you check it out. These types of budget constraints actually lend themselves to the story – what may have been glossier with more money (in both films), manifests in the shape of gritty realism.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

The Messenger

This is Oren Moverman’s directorial debut. His follow-up was the incendiary (and much recommended) Rampart, currently playing in cinemas.

Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) is a war hero back in the USA following a tour of duty in Afghanistan. With battle scars - both mental and physical - and not long left to serve, he is given the unenviable task of notifying the next of kin that their nearest and dearest have been killed in combat. To do so he is teamed with Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) who lays down strict ground rules on dealing with the bereaved. Enter newly-widowed Olivia (Samantha Morton) who puts Will’s discipline to the test.

Dealing with the fallout from war is not the sexiest of subject matter – essentially war films that do not contain war. There is no actual combat within the film (which does work, mind). The war is dislocated from the ‘real world’ but impinges on everyone’s lives in the film. It brings to mind the likes of Coming Home, The Deer Hunter and underrated Dennis Hopper flick Tracks. (All, incidentally, set against a backdrop of the Vietnam War.) The conflict in Afghanistan is similarly controversial but times have changed a lot since then. For instance, the all-encompassing media of today threatens to do the two soldiers’ job for them. Therefore each notification of a death is dealt with as an emergency military situation. Also, the entire working population of the western world in this day and age appears to be always on the brink of being sued. So doing the job wrong poses a very serious risk. The mechanics of these military roles is fascinating. I was actually more interested by these aspects of the film than by Will’s relationship with Olivia, which is a full-on downer. Will’s relationship with Tony, however, is far more engaging. 

Compared to Rampart in which Moverman really found his directorial groove, this does feel like a first film. Moverman co-scripted with Alesandro Camon and the writing is a little flat at times with some scenes lacking the necessary bite. But it’s a film with a brain and some balls and offers a unique and challenging take on the current conflict.