LOS ANGELES – If you’re a hit man by trade, then you’ve already made a deal with the devil, even if those you eliminate fall into the category of human waste of the drug-dealing, kidnapping, warmongering sort. So really, it should come as no surprise that Jay and Gal, the murdering blokes in the twisted horror-thriller “Kill List,” have gotten themselves into a bizarre fix, though having to seal a contract in blood should have been a tip-off.
The provocative if not exactly pleasurable darkness that creeps into every corner of this latest British import from filmmaker Ben Wheatley takes its time getting to the serious evildoing that the director and his co-writer, Amy Jump, have in mind, however.
Instead, it begins with a screaming match between Jay (Neil Maskell) and his wife, Shel (MyAnna Buring). After botching a job, Jay has been out of work for months, bills and tensions are piling up, all of which Shel lays out with searing invective. To which Jay responds in kind.
That sets the stage and the tone for this grown-up house of horrors. His old partner Gal (Michael Smiley) wants him to consider one last job together. He does, but there is a price. It involves three hits, with Jay increasingly unhinged, each kill more violent than the last. Gal is unable to rein him in; their arguments about what is and isn’t proper when it comes to killing still won’t prepare you for what’s on screen.
This is a far more brutal film than Wheatley’s first, 2009’s “Down Terrace.” Though it had crime at its center as well, it was balanced by a dry irony and far less blood. There is no offset in “Kill List,” with one scene so relentless in its gore that it makes the notorious elevator scene in “Drive” pale in comparison.
What “Kill List” and “Down Terrace” share is Wheatley’s love of dense plotting, though like Jay, you wish someone would occasionally rein him in too. His are stories that demand attention and generally reward, dropping tantalizing bits along the way, then ending with a bang. This time Wheatley is obsessed with the soul and how it can be corrupted and co-opted. Dark stuff, but it gives the actors a lot to work with.
Maskell and Buring prove a perfect pair, scorching as they bare the love-hate of a troubled marriage. And watching Maskell morph from a kind of Walter Mitty of hit men to monstrous is, I have to admit, mesmerizing.
The road here leads Gal and Jay toward the occult. Friends and strangers keep turning up in unexpected ways, and the strange ritualistic practices that accompany devil worship start taking shape. Adding to the general unease is the gritty, documentary look achieved by director of photography Laurie Rose, who shot “Down Terrace” as well. The camera is unflinching, and so is Wheatley, as the story moves toward the unthinkable. It’s left to you when and whether to look away.