Cinema releases: September 2

“Comedy of menace” was the celebrated phrase created by the critic Irving Wardle to describe Harold Pinter’s passive aggressive plays and one could apply the same words to British writer/director Ben Wheatley’s extraordinary new film Kill List, replete as it is with threatening non sequiturs and an ever-present undercurrent of terror.

Before Kill List, Wheatley was known only for his low-budget 2009 debut Down Terrace – an idiosyncratic portrait of a family of small-time gangsters set in Brighton. That film promised much without being entirely convincing, but that promise has been more than fulfilled by Kill List’s persuasively terrible eloquence, in which Pinter’s The Homecoming meets Mike Leigh’s High Hopes via The Wicker Man.

After a cryptic opening shot of a pagan sign, the film begins with a domestic spat between Jay (a coldly perfect Neil Maskell) and his wife Shel (MyAnna Burning) over money. Their house is anonymously middle-class. We could be anywhere in suburban Britain, though Wheatley seems to be saying that it rapidly becomes apparent this is only a veiled normality, as Jay and his partner Gal (Michael Smiley) are both Iraq war veterans turned contract killers. Financially compelled to take another job, they meet an unknown client in a foreboding, dour hotel who needs three people knocked off.

It’s at this point that Kill List begins to turn very strange and sinister indeed; the client insists upon sealing the contract in blood as Jim Williams’s eminently unsettling score – the film’s saturnine heartbeat – pulses underneath. Gal and Jay set about their murderous task, only to be confronted by a series of curiously willing victims and child pornography of such unseen depravity that it drives Andy McNab-reading, cat-loving Jay into a helter-skelter of psychosis and homicidal rage. The film’s glass grows ever darker as it nears its terrifyingly convincing denouement.

Constant narrative ambiguity is what renders Kill List so compelling. It’s often funny, ostensibly and unwittingly, as when we cut straight from the duo incinerating a priest to Jay sweet-talking Shel on Skype, but the humour is always conditioned by the prowling threat of imminent violence. Wheatley’s quick-cut scenes and the film’s disparate, overlaid dialogue all add to this howling conspiracy of terror that we know must ultimately be confronted.

Some critics have called it a horror film. Others say it’s really a war film. Wheatley himself thinks it’s about the “erosion of the social contract” in modern Britain, which, given his accomplishment here, doesn’t seem overly grand. What’s indisputable is that Kill List, outside of genre’s confines, is a revelatory cinematic achievement and the most original, unsettling and cerebrally menacing British film to emerge so far from this young and troubled decade.

Despite nominally being a horror film, Chris Gillespie’s remake of Tom Holland’s 1985 vampire movie Fright Night just doesn’t compare to Kill List in the terror stakes. For the all-American sub-Twilight fright vehicle its trying to be, it’s not badly made, though Colin Farrell is lacklustre as Jerry, the vampire living next door to the spectacularly jejune Charley Brewster (Anton Yelchin); he pales in comparison with Chris Sarandon’s suave, apple-munching night creature of the original.

David Tennant has an amusing cameo as Peter Vincent, the TV “Vampire Killer”, who, in comparison to the cowardly, failed thesp in the 1980s version, has become a sexually insatiable, successful star and helps Brewster fight Jerry out of compassion rather than shame.

The most irritating aspect of the film is the gratuitous use of 3D – is it really worth wearing the glasses at all if you only get a few specks of wayward vampire blood leaping from the screen? LR

Other releases

The Hedgehog, a wistful, character-driven French comedy from a best-selling novel (by Muriel Barbery), is charming and annoying by turn. “Annoying” eventually knocks down “charming”, much as a vehicle knocks down a significant character in a concluding scene. Large, lonely-hearted concierge Renée (jolie grasse Josiane Balasko) looks after a Paris apartment block. The building’s kooks include the death-obsessed 14-year-old Paloma (Garance Le Guillermic), forever camcording her long-suffering family, and the neat, chivalric Japanese widower Ozu (Igawa Togo), newly moving in, not least on Renée.

The theme is hidden luminosity. The lens-wielding girl is obviously an Agnes Varda in the making. The man from Japan is a soulful sweetie disguised as a stick. Renée herself reads Tolstoy in secret and captures Mr Ozu’s heart by liking the films of Ozu. “Are you related?” she asks. “No, I’m not,” he answers. The consequence: one more non-sequitur we are asked to embrace as charming idiosyncrasy. In this human soup you take what you can get. Sometimes too many kooks spoil the broth. Just occasionally, the lightness of flavour and savour is a consommé devoutly to be wished.

Gillian Wearing is a British conceptual artist and former Turner Prize winner. In Self Made she rewards a group of innocents who answered her “Do you want to act?” ad with a full-immersion method course. Every viewer of this documentary will have his/her prejudices confirmed. Method sceptics will see an ordeal by gobbledegook and emotional manipulation, as teacher Sam Rumbelow shifts the furniture in his students’ brains and hearts. They weep, laugh, agonise. They remember – each – their own Madeleine moments, when they first dunked their bite-sized souls in a cup of timor mortis.

Believers in the method will see the same thing but applaud it. Psychotherapy by another name? Why not? It is touching to watch the Geordie forty-something weep her way into playing a 1940s-style stiff-upper-lip movie love scene, pastiched for us in black and white. Same for the girl whose tortured relationship with her father is channelled into a scene from King Lear. In acting, as in so much of life, the motto must surely be “whatever works.”

Who says there are no good roles for women in modern cinema? In this week’s independent movies men barely get a look in. The XX chromosome rules. Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Attenberg is, you might say, about volitional alienation. Two Greek girls (Ariane Labed, Evangelia Randou) fence at the world with the weapons of their friendship and fantasy playactings. These include French-kissing sessions, skittish dance-alongs in the street, Monty Pythonish silly walks and whimsical interpretations of their life experiences according to TV nature programmes. (“Attenberg” is their misspelling of “Attenborough”).

How will this antic, resolute sisterliness, with its hint of an emotional siege mentality, deal with heterosexual romance when it comes? We find out. The verdict for audiences? Much as in the films above. If you stay, hope to be charmed. But be warned: you could be exasperated first by the servings of self-regard and psycho-spiritual preciosity. NA

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.