In Kill List the country is divided between the killers, trapped in awful marriages, up to their eyeballs in debt, desperate to hang on to their suburban new builds, their victims: the marginal, denizens of a grey, wintry edgeland of damp basement flats, lock ups, factories and industrial estates, and the cultic higher orders, whose arcane practices and rituals are as ancient as their hold on power.
Marriage is a battlefield, kids are collateral damage. Friendships may erupt into violence at any moment. Work is a series of bloody tasks carried out under the auspices of vastly powerful forces with whom one wittingly or otherwise has signed a blood oath, the exact nature of which is deeply uncertain. Everyone, even your own partner, regards death as a merciful release.Your complicity in your own destruction is the only thing that is guaranteed.
In this sense Kill List is the first great film of Austerity Britain.
The damaged veteran finding ways to readjust to and deploy his skills on Civvy street is a common recent theme in British film, but there’s nothing noble or sympathetic about Jay and Gal. Nor do they have that surplus of confidence, the familiarity with violence and the rugged self determination that often makes the demobbed squaddie a hero figure. In fact they lack agency and soon become fearful of what they have got themselves into. In Nick Love’s Outlaw, the returned soldier raises a vigilante gang to combat The Establishment, but in Kill List they continue to be its pawns.
There have been all kinds of heated theorizations about how and if Kill List’s elliptical and allusive narrative ties up. But Kill List is less interesting for what it means than what it does, enacting a violent rupture with and within its genre conventions, bringing the British Gangster movie under pressure from two directions, Loachian realism and Gothic horror. Only hammering these two seemingly irreconcilable forms together can adequately get at the texture of the moment: cold dread, incomprehension, the sense that things are out of your control, your life is not your own.
We are a long way here, from cheeky London-centric capers like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking barrels. This an England which, during the pomp of the post-historic and classless 90s and Noughties had been banished, never to return.
Food Bank Britain, ATOS Britain, UKIP Britain, with its endlessly declining pay, rising rents, spiralling debts. Home to the nine poorest areas of northern Europe as well as its single richest. A country riven by a series of fantastical, overlapping revelations, phone hacking, financial manipulation, VIP paedophiles, police corruption. A nexus of vested interests intent on occulting and exculpating it all.
To be plunged into such a world, such a crisis, to have a set of prior assumptions whisked away, is disorienting, disturbing, nerve-jangling, the pieces can't yet be fitted fully together, something terrible is happening, has perhaps always been happening, History has returned in all its devastating, vertiginous enormity, not, or not yet at least as the continuation of a progressive project but as a nightmare.
The film was shot in Sheffield, the setting for one of Ben Wheatley’s favourite non-horror horror films, the harrowing nuclear attack docu-drama, Threads.
In an interview for a A Field in England Ben Wheatley suggests that it should be thought of as a prequel to Kill List. Loath as I am to disagree with the director’s assessment of his own work, I am going to suggest that the reverse is true. That Kill List, a film about the present, can’t help but be about the past. A Field in England, though it’s set during the civil war is really a film about the future.
If there is an initially terrible, traumatic return of history in Kill List, history as the piling up of disasters, trauma on trauma, the evil plan of the establishment, the Illuminati, the dark ones unfolding. In A Field in England a countervailing set of societies, movements, and organizations is evoked, the history of the long struggle for liberation. There is some corner of an English field, that is forever foreign, committed to experiment, to rejection, to turning the world upside down, pushing toward the new, and the film itself, with its baroque stylization and breathtaking formal boldness, maintains fidelity to this tradition as it invokes it.
Again the film deals with soldiers, conscripts, rather than professionals who exit the civil war, enter a different field and decide to strike out together to look for an alehouse. This though is a ruse and they are dragooned instead into a treasure hunt. After a few brief moments as masterless men they are again set to work. “I am my own man, I am my own man” Jacob repeats angrily as he digs for treasure at gunpoint.
Whitehead’s story could be the drab, reactionary tale of a cowardly intellectual who through learning to kill becomes more-than-human, somewhat like Dustin Hoffman’s character by the end of Straw Dogs. But in seeking to return to his master and fullfil his task in a repeat of the films opening point of view shot as he plunges through the hedgerow, he is instead returned to the field and finds Friend and Jacob reborn and silently waiting. The final shot is a tableau of the three men, memorialised, charged with an eerie significance.
The inability to escape from a particular location, with all the narrow, winding roads leading you eventually back to doom, is a trope of rural horror, a spacialization of circadian, rural rhythms, the modern progressive man, rider of times arrow fallen into the vortex, we might say, given that Peter Strickland’s superb Berberian Sound Studio deals with similar themes the Equestrian Vortex, of deep time. But here it is used to different, more optimistic ends.
From the flux and chaos of the battle, from their repeated deaths and rebirths, from their having travelled as far into and out of themselves as its possible to go the men have been transformed. Whitehead is now caught up in a particular social field, a particular set of relations. Toward the end of the film Jacob tells him that all along the true treasure was here between them. They have become masterless, finally, not through some abstract notion of freedom, nor by slipping away through the hedgerow, but precisely by staying within the field, altering their relation to it, their relation to each other. Here it is a field, but it could a square, a street, an estate, a nation, a world. This is a process, an alchemical process, which we might call comradeization, in which they no longer are “their own men”, but of and for each other.
In this way the film is not just of a piece with the neglected films of the 60’s and 70s regularly tagged as influences, from Witchfinder General to Culloden, from Winstanley to Blood on Satan’s Claw but also with more trenchant, overtly politicized treatments of the theme, Peter Hall’s Akenfield and Bill Douglas’ Comrades.
In returning to the past, to the Civil War and its role in accelerating enclosure A Field in England returns us to the problem of ownership, the commons and land rights, something previously considered to be an issue mainly for indigenous peoples in the developing world. The term re-peasantization is used now to talk about the movement of the young unemployed in Spain, or Greece out of urban centres.
When the city can offer us nothing but precarious employment as servants of the rich, it’s not rural but urban life that begins to look like the idiocy. A Field in England reminds us that the countryside is no idyll, is as much an arena of power and conflict as anywhere. Who knows but that groups of radicals returning to the land, as they have periodically, will find themselves in solidarity with rural workers, against the ancient estates and the group approvingly identified by the Telegraph back in 2004 as the new squirearchy of our neo-feudal times.
But A Field in England is also cut from more millenarian cloth, imbued with other, longer range fantasies and fears. Finally, when all social relations breakdown, when the end comes, when the credit dries up and the oil runs out, when the waters rise or exotic diseases decimate the globe and Malthus has the last laugh, we will be obliged to return to the land and the great cycle will be complete.
In Threads, Ben Wheatley’s favourite non-horror horror film, after the bitter decade-long night of the nuclear Winter has passed, rudimentary communities spring up again to till the soil that, momentarily at least, has been returned to them.
It has taken a war to get them there.