Watching Ben Wheatley's disappointing sophomore feature Kill List feels like climbing a house someone stopped building half-way through. The more strain you put on the structure, the more it creaks and groans until the whole thing ultimately collapses. There are some brilliant moments in here - the young British horror director gets some fantastically naturalistic performances out of his cast, shoots with a keen, professional eye and sets up some haunting, genuinely disturbing imagery that begs any number of questions. But too many of those questions never get answered, the imagery isn't really that frightening and while the leads are definitely believable, there's nothing about the way their roles develop to really make you care about what happens to them.
It's horribly, horribly frustrating because the introduction suggests something exceptional. Jay (Neil Maskell) is an ex-soldier turned private security guard, out of work after a job went terribly wrong - where it quickly becomes obvious there's nothing stopping him from getting back to work bar the demons in his head. His wife Shel (MyAnna Buring) struggles to sympathise, wanting to put a brave face on it for their young son, but Jay's indolence and lapses in judgement are testing her ability to cope. One night Jay's best friend Gal (Michael Smiley) turns up for a dinner party with an offer of a job - knowing the other man is close to breaking point even before the dinner dissolves into screaming and mutual recrimination. Jay grudgingly accepts, knowing he's got little choice... only little by little we discover this is a continuation of some extra-curricular work the two men have already been doing for some time, and it's a lot darker than it seems.
The opening act or so manages some masterful character development; believably British but never twee or grating with it. Going by the credits, much of the early dialogue was improvised, and it's shockingly good - part farce, part comedy of manners, part rough-hewn, touching drama. Jay, Shel, Gal and his girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer) are readily identifiable types, but only in the sense your friends and family are - this is mundane soap-opera blather reinvented as foreshadowing for something absolutely ghastly yet to come, and it works really, really well, whether it's Gal calming Jay's son, trying to distract him from his parents yelling abuse or Shel and Fiona making uneasy smalltalk, both women subconsciously trying to work out Where It All Went Wrong.
And then Wheatley attempts to make the switch from the mundane to the horrific, and Kill List begins sliding steadily off the rails. The slow peeling back of layer after layer of plot is a fantastic piece of smoke and mirrors, but as what's revealed gets more and more over the top you start to wish the director would cover it all up again. It isn't that these two plot elements shouldn't mix, and there are moments Kill List feels like a short story Clive Barker might have written circa Books of Blood. But the alien element only ever raises further questions - enigmatic hints at some bigger picture that get steadily weirder - and none of these are ever conclusively answered. When the film basically winds up multiple set pieces in exactly the same way, when a job doesn't finish the way Jay and Gal expected and leaves them asking why did this happen?, all the talent involved can't stop this from feeling like a failure on the film's part.
Wheatley seems to be trying to go for an ambiguous story heavy on symbolism and general trigger warnings for childhood nightmares, but with reams and reams of wordy dialogue from characters who never shut up the film is begging for a mythology of some kind instead. But no such thing is ever forthcoming. We never learn how Jay and Gal got away with the terrible things they've supposedly done, why Shel went along with it, who the bad guys are - their mysterious client remains An Evil Old Man, nothing more. The cast continue to impress up until the final baffling twist, but the steady refusal to elaborate on what the hell's going on makes a mockery of their efforts. Jay stops seeming like a decent or even interesting guy, and more like an idiot sticking his head in a lion's mouth against all the evidence suggesting it's a bad idea.
There's much to admire here - the performances, the rising sense of menace made apparent in even the most trivial exchanges of dialogue, some fairly impressive cinematography from DP Laurie Rose - but not much to actually like. It's difficult to criticise Wheatley too much; there's every sign he's made a film he greatly identifies with, and he's clearly already a very accomplished director working with a talented cast and crew. But by the final act everything feels so wrong it takes a concerted effort to keep watching. It's not that the characters necessarily deserve redemption, but the way they slide headlong from bad to worse seemingly for the hell of it with never a word of explanation for what's influencing them or why doesn't make for particularly interesting viewing. Ben Wheatley is definitely still a name worth watching out for, but Kill List doesn't really merit any kind of recommendation.