Playing as part of the SXFantastic sidebar at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival, “Kill List” marks the return to Austin for British filmmaker Ben Wheatley. He was previously in town for the 2009 edition of the genre-centric Fantastic Fest with his first film, “Down Terrace,” which began as a look at small-town gangsters where the stakes were so small as to seem comical and built up to something terrifying and stunning. With “Kill List,” Wheatley again steadily escalates from the banal to the bruising.
After a screening Sunday night, the audience was so seemingly disoriented and stunned, as if it had been collectively struck by a head-butt, that it took a few moments for anyone to think of a question to ask during the Q&A.
[For the record: An earlier version of this post stated that Ben Wheatley's "Down Terrace" played as part of the 2010 South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas. The film actually premiered in Austin at the fall 2009 edition of the Fantastic Fest film festival. Wheatley's new film, "Kill List," is playing at the 2011 edition of SXSW as part of SXFantastic, a sidebar programmed by Fantastic Fest.]
"Kill List," which premiered Saturday at midnight and screened again Sunday night, is deceptive, tricky and creates something of a phantasm of anxieties large and small.
"It's based around my dreams and nightmares," Wheatley said while introducing the film Sunday, "which includes being chased, being trapped in small places and, indeed, long and difficult dinner parties — all types of horror."
The film opens with a dinner party between two couples who don't seem to particularly enjoy each other's company. The men (Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley) are former army buddies who now sometimes work together. Business has been off lately — apparently even hit men can be affected by an economic downturn — so when a job comes along that seems too good to be true, they have no option but to take it.
Escalating from uncomfortable domestic drama to gritty action to cult-horror freakout, likely few other films reference both Mike Leigh and "The Wicker Man."
"It's definitely a film of acts," Wheatley said after the Sunday screening. "The move forward was going from a domestic drama and it mutates — I don't know why I'm explaining it, you've just watched it."
Asked if some the film's cult religious imagery was taken from anything specific, Wheatley said he just made it all up.
"It's actually stuff I'm afraid of in my own mind, and I know it's been made up in my head, in dreams and like that, so I was trying to find that primal, scared point. I guess what you see is just a fear of other people, organized groups of people. It doesn't really matter what their belief system is or how they jam it all together, you don't need to know that. You just need to know their goal is something cohesive and they don't like you."
— Mark Olsen in Austin, Texas
Photo from "Kill List" from SXSW.