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It’s Kill List summer, baby

An all-time horror-thriller is where Hijack, The Witcher, and Meg 2 intersect

A person whose face is obscured by twigs holds a lit torch in the dark. Image: IFC Films/Everett Collection
Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

Idris Elba may lend Apple TV’s gripping new series Hijack star power, but his co-star, Neil Maskell, is the one who grabs the premise by the throat. As the lead terrorist hijacking a flight from Dubai to London, the scruffy British actor barks orders, jerks passengers around, and sweats profusely as things don’t exactly go according to plan. Any actor can perform ticking-clock drama, but few have the goods to let the weight of a situation completely crush their psyche. Rage, confusion, spiraling crisis — this is the Maskell special.

The creative team behind Hijack clearly watched him in Kill List, one of the all-time great horror-thrillers that’s having an unexpected moment… that only people in the Kill List hive would possibly notice. But you want to be in the Kill List hive.

Maskell has been all over British TV in the last decade, playing gruff cops, gruff robbers, and even gruff Winston Churchill on Peaky Blinders. But the apex of his particular raw energy, the kind that Hijack confines to a jet’s suffocating cabins so that Elba’s master negotiator character can worm his way into the hijack plans, is in Kill List. In the 2011 film, the actor plays Jay, a tortured hitman recruited for a series of missions that lead him into dizzying, cult-ish conspiracies. Stricken with wartime PTSD but swimming in bills, Jay can’t say no to the lethal missions issued to him by shadowy employers, but every kill seems to shatter him even more. Maskell’s blowups on Hijack can feel explosive thanks to the page-turner construction of the story, but in Kill List — where violence and Blair Witch-esque mythology give Jay’s descent an eldritch quality — his performance is downright ballistic. It’s ugly. It’s great!

Neil Maskell with a beard looking confused on an airplane in Hijack Image: Apple TV Plus
Michael Smiley and Neil Maskell hovering close to one another in a suburban home in Kill LIst
(L) Neil Maskell in Hijack (R) Michael Smiley and Maskell in Kill List
Image: Apple TV Plus; Photo: IFC Films/Everett Collection

Kill List is the nightmare vision of writer Amy Jump and filmmaker Ben Wheatley, who is also in the news right now: After playing in the indie genre sandbox for years, the director recently took a swing with Meg 2: The Trench. And while that swing may have been a miss, there is no amount of rotten tomatoes that will sour me on Wheatley — Kill List made me a lifer on his, at times, sadistic need to experiment with form and push the audience. For Wheatley and Jump, Kill List was as much an image-forward film as something like Meg 2, but instead of a shark, there was a sigil. Early in Kill List, a woman Jay believes to be the girlfriend of his friend and mercenary accomplice Gal (Michael Smiley) escapes to his bathroom to scrawl a symbol behind the bathroom mirror. Jay has been marked, quite literally, and the moment haunts the more grounded drama that unfolds.

“The idea of the film was that the whole film was a curse,” Wheatley told me back when doing press for his Rebecca remake at Netflix. “You start with the sigil and you end with it. And if you watch the film, you’re fucked, basically. The film itself wants you to be really, really upset and that’s all it cares about — making you upset. It doesn’t care about anything else. I find it a hard film to watch now. It’s so bad-tempered and so aggressive... I think that’s why people keep going back to it.”

Adding to the torrent of Kill List relevancy in 2023 is Maskell’s on-screen sparring partner, MyAnna Buring, who many know as Tissaia on The Witcher. In Wheatley and Jump’s film, Buring is doing significantly less swirling-magic hand action, and instead bewitching the screen with her portrayal of a wife trying to reel her partner back into a sense of normalcy. Wheatley’s first film, Down Terrace, was a gnarled darkly funny portrayal of crime life in Brighton — almost a family sitcom with murderous turns. Kill List isn’t too far off, even as it conjures cosmic stakes; in the beginning, Maskell and Buring are a couple trying to make suburban life work in a stretch of financial and psychological turmoil. Jay and Buring’s character, Shel, are raising a son they love between spats that send ceramic plates flying at the wall. The two find a rhythm akin to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf… all before Jay begins sinking into the quicksand of assassin life. All too often, crime films indulge in the fantasy of the killer, but the presence of Buring — a woman with her own vision for life, a mother who’d become equally lethal if anyone tried to harm her kid — punctures any sense of glamour.

Tissaia in a red gown on The Witcher
MyAnna Buring as Shell in Kill List looking out a window with the green trees reflecting on the window
(L) MyAnna Buring in The Witcher (R) Buring in Kill List
Photo: Netflix; Image: IFC Films/Everett Collection

Did I mention Kill List is a good time at the movies? I swear it is. As hard as Wheatley’s film hits, the caliber of the performances and the twisty plot keeps the story from sinking too far into the morose. Plus, Smiley’s goofball partner Gal also brings imperative levity (if only he had a new show or movie during the summer of Kill List, but, oh well, go watch him in last year’s Apple TV Plus series Bad Sisters). The movie is still “horror” for horror buffs — just maybe not how any studio releasing a mainstream horror movie in the year 2023 would think about it.

“I think the thing about horror in general is horror is quite mannered and polite to itself, in terms of genre,” Wheatley said in reflecting on Kill List’s place in the canon. “And horror fans like horror — they want to see horror tropes, they want to see them again and again in the same way. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but that’s kind of one half of horror. Kill List is much more of an assault. The characters in there, and their attitudes, are all so brutal. And then the way that the film deals with them is… quite brutal.”

Maybe Kill List would have a stronger legacy if it had come after the A24 wave of “elevated horror,” at a time where the whispers of its shocking turns could have been memes paraded around Twitter. But it didn’t. Thankfully, we have the summer of Kill List. After The Witcher, after Hijack, and maybe after Meg 2 if you’re a completionist, it’s time to buckle up and watch a great feel-bad movie.

Kill List is available to watch on Tubi.

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