Monday 21 November 2016

We Don't Go Back #15: Ben Wheatley, part 2

Kill List (2011); Sightseers (2012)

I've tried not to repeat myself in this project too much. But Ben Wheatley (with Amy Jump sharing scripting duties) made three films in three consecutive years that qualify in some way or another as folk horror, and they're all different enough and strange enough to be worth writing about.

I wrote about A Field in England a couple of weeks ago. I discussed the ending. I'm going to do that a little with Kill List, and somewhat less with Sightseers.

Even more than A Field in England, Kill List cannot be written about without its surprises being laid bare. The only thing I can say about it that doesn't ruin it is that it's the single most disturbing of all the films I've looked at.

What's weird is that even though it's a film you absolutely have to see first time cold (if prepared for gore and dread in equal measure) it manages the singular feat of being more disturbing and creepy the second time around. Innocuous moments in the first viewing become the foreshadowings of terrible things on the second.

It starts like it might have been directed by Mike Leigh. Jay (Neil Maskell, one of my favourite currently working actors) is married to Shel (MyAnna Buring) and has a young son, who he clearly dotes on. Jay's marriage is under stress because he's been out of work for eight months, ostensibly for health reasons, although there's some indication that these health reasons are due to some emotional trauma that neither Jay nor Shel will admit to.
The first twenty minutes of the film are dedicated to a dinner party. Jay's work colleague Gal (Michael Smiley) has brought a date, Fiona (Emma Fryer). The party is fraught, awkward. Excruciating to watch. Fiona's job (apparently as a human resources consultant, charged with "downsizing" failing businesses) becomes a prickly, touchy subject. Jay's own marital tension explodes.
It's time to get back on the horse.
Things calm down. Things mend. Gal and Jay have a chat in the garage. Gal, an easygoing, generous sort, tells his friend that "It's time to get back on the horse."

Jay shows him his new sniper rifle. They're hit men, business partners (Shel, herself formerly a soldier, handles the finances). Gal and Shel have got a client, a short kill list of three targets. How hard can it be?
After the sigil.
The party eases up. Fiona goes to the bathroom. There she takes down the mirror and, with a knife, carves a sigil on the back of the bathroom mirror. And replaces the mirror, and smiles. And steals the tissues which mopped up Jay's blood when he cut himself shaving.
The client.
From that point on, the film's feeling of intense dread never lets up; a nameless, smirking client slices Jay's hand with a knife when the deal is cut. Fiona dumps Gal but turns up at Jay's house when Jay is out and makes friends with Shel. And appears outside a hotel window, waving at Jay.

Someone kills rabbits and leaves parts of them on the lawn. And then the cat, leaving it trussed up in wire and hanging outside the door.
Jay and Gal travel. They go to deserted identikit chain hotels. The only other people they meet are a group of very stereotypical evangelical Christians at whom Jay explodes when they start singing hymns in the travelodge restaurant. The sense that something is very wrong bleeds into the boredom and mundanity, but it somehow never reduces either.

Their victims say "thank you." More and more, something pagan, something evil overshadows the two men. The librarian's porn collection contains things so awful that Jay loses his cool in a big way.
Gal: You're covered in blood.
Jay: I'll burn 'em.
Gal: The sign of a good painter and decorator?
Jay: What?
Gal: Clean overalls. No bodging.
Jay: Point taken. 
The last hit doesn't go to plan. They witness a human sacrifice. And then... There's that ending.
Willing sacrifice.
Rewatching the film, I had to fast-forward through the last ten minutes. Suffice to say that the ending, which a number of people have suggested doesn't make sense, makes sense and is foreshadowed throughout the film. It doesn't spoonfeed you, but Kill List has that sense of deterministic dread to it, the same it-was-you-they-wanted inevitability of Robin Redbreast and The Wicker Man.

The English countryside is contemporary, all travelodges and declined credit cards, and a Pyrex jug is a very modern dinner party faux pas, but pagan black magic waits in the corner of your eye, blacker than ever. Cultists wear masks that look like corn dollies. They accept death. They create chaos. They believe only in the present. Everything leads to this one moment, where This Season's King of Chaos and Death is crowned. Only corruption rules, and it waits patiently behind the curtains of normality.
Normality, or the pursuit of it, is a central theme of Sightseers, which is the darkest of dark comedies. Tina (Alice Lowe) is a lonely 34-year-old woman who lives with her emotionally abusive mother Carol (Eileen Davies). Her bed's full of teddy bears. She has framed certificates for courses in dog psychology on the wall.

Tina killed the dog a year ago, in a freak knitting accident, and hasn't been forgiven.
This needs no words.
She's found a nerdy man called Chris (Steve Oram). They're off on a caravanning holiday together.She's excited enough about this to have knitted herself crotchless lingerie.
[Carol comes out of the house. Tina rolls down the window.]
Tina: Bye, Mum! 
Carol: You'll be back.
Tina: I will, Mum. In a week.
Chris: OK, well, we'll see you then, Carol. I'll bring her back safe, don't you worry. Ey, I understand you collect snow globes?
Carol: I don't like you.
Chris: OK. Well. See you, then.
[Chris starts the car.]
Tina: Show me the world, Chris!
Chris: I thought we'd start with Crich Tram Museum.
Tina: Great!
In the Pencil Museum.
The English countryside is commodified; it's a succession of low-rent tourist attractions. A tram museum. Tina and Chris absorb these banal places with bland enthusiasm. A man drops a piece of litter on a tram. Chris detonates with outrage. When they leave, Chris sees the man in the car park and reverses the caravan over him.
Season of the witch.
He behaves like it was an accident. "He's ruined the tram museum for me now," he says. It doesn't keep them from enjoying their holiday. They're soon having caravan-rocking sex in car parks.

Chris is  frustrated, desperately, his anger at a world that won't go his way expressing itself in murderous rage. He seems to think the English countryside will be more civil to him.
Chris: Take the noble English Oak. Old Nobbly. That won't stab you in the back or belittle your five year plan. That tree won't steal things that belong to you and put them in another place, just to piss you off. That tree won't involve itself in low-level bullying... that means you have to leave work.
But the problem is, the countryside won't show him respect. A middle class man who's writing a book about walks who doesn't want to talk to him. A man who insists they pick up the leavings of their dog (itself stolen from one of their previous victims).
If there's anything Western popular culture has learned in the last few years, put-upon nerds tend towards psychopathy, and the isolation allows Chris the chance to impose bloody order on the world he sees. Tina, initially horrified, sees the embrace of death as an embrace of chaos (In a scene partway through, they park the caravan next door to a small shamanic festival. Chris is appalled; Tina is fascinated, watches them with longing) and she enthusiastically begins to murder people too.

But it's not the same. She doesn't understand him. In the end, death from an urge to chaos and death from a desire for order will conflict, and one will prove far more proficient. Either way, death wins.

Neither of these films is straightforwardly one thing (I think I like Sightseers better, but that's partly because Kill List is so very disturbing that I had to psych myself up to watching it a second time to write this). But they still work together. Both show a bland, banal countryside that inspires murderous thoughts. Theirs is a dark espousal of the business of death as the chaotic, inescapable sacrament of a bleak paganism.