Note: this is not a review of KILL LIST (short review: I liked it quite a bit, more so in retrospect), so much as a theory of what I think is going on, and as a result contains MASSIVE FUCKING SPOILERS and you should avoid it if you have not seen the film. But feel free to come by afterwards and theorize with me.
Seriously: if you haven't seen it, get the hell out.
While you can.
(Apologies for anything I missed/got wrong on a first viewing: there's a lot that's not spelled out, and a lot that seems really random on a first viewing that can't be understood until the whole film unspools.)
The key line to unlocking KILL LIST occurs after the second killing, when the two hit men attempt to recuse themselves from the three hits they have been assigned. This turns out to be unacceptable to the client, who has them in mind for something. When asked what their goal is, they explain it in one word: "Reconstruction".
Neither of the hitman, Jay or Gal, has any idea what that means. Neither did I. But my friend Mike pointed out after the screening that reconstruction was a term used historically in regards to reorganizing Christian churches. I can't find a great precis online for it in a brief scan, but this book's summary gives an idea, as does this contemporary symposium's summary of reconstruction.
Now, having seen KILL LIST, you know it's about a religious cult. (SERIOUSLY, GET THE FUCK OUT NOW IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THE FILM!) If the reconstruction of the cult is occurring, it means it's fallen upon hard times in some way. And so they need an agent for this reconstruction - a "chosen one" - who will lead the cult into the new era. One who, by blood sacrifice (a not uncommon religious practice), will bring about greater religious heights.
Meet Jay, our main character.
When I immediately walked out of KILL LIST, I took the final scene, where Jay kills his wife and son (who are masked and portrayed as a hunchback and fighting Jay with a knife), as merely a person put into a disturbing situation that got really screwed over, and perhaps a mere audience provocation.
But, I don't think it's just a provocation. See, there's this.
Jay's first two victims both thank him. The first, the priest, in passing. Easy to dismiss at the time. The second, the librarian, at great length, in one of the most darkly funny scenes of the film. Before this, when Gal leaves the room, the librarian says to Jay, "He (Gal) doesn't know who you are, does he?"
He doesn't. And neither does Jay. Not yet.
While Jay is slowly torturing the librarian, Gal discovers a safe that has pictures of them, not just from a failed mission in Kiev, but from their surveillance of the first killing. Why?
Well, Jay and Gal have been chosen for this mission especially, that much is obvious. And it's been in the works for a while, from Fiona (cult member) seducing Gal to the Kiev reconnaissance. But forget about Jay's life for the moment. Let's talk about the priest and the librarian.
I believe both are cult members - the latter seems dead cert, the former has less evidence but the "thank you" is pretty strong hint. They know Jay's face.
They know Jay is coming - maybe not for them specifically - but they know he will make a blood sacrifice for the glory of the religious organization. (His photos from Kiev are enough to share his image. His current photos, perhaps, proof of his doings as religious text for a future age.)
(Also: Jay for Jesus? Is that too much of a stretch? Maybe. Maybe not. He does sacrifice his only son, so perhaps it's not a Jesus figure we're looking at; it's a Christian God, come back to the Earth in a low-budget Revelations-style housecleaning.)
So at the end of the film, when Jay kills his wife and child, it is a completion of a prophecy. He takes off his mask - and the cult see the arrival of the chosen one.
What Jay's feeling about all of this is a bit hard to know. Not that he's ever been the most open guy, but the look on his face (the last shot of the film) is indecipherable. The cut on his hand that refuses to heal (OH HAI STIGMATA REFERENCE) has perhaps also caused him to go a bit crazy? Perhaps the wound is infected with some chemical from the knife, or perhaps not.
But here's a question: if you'd done what Jay did, and were in his shoes, would you kill yourself? Would you try to kill those around you? (Good luck, you're surrounded by madmen.) Or would you choose to live as a hand-appointed messiah of the rich and powerful - assuming that you survive long enough for that privilege?
And could you delude yourself into thinking you ever, really, had a choice?
MYSTERIES AND PUZZLES:
- WTF is going on with the scene with the doctor? He refuses to treat the hand and says some mystical stuff about the present. Presumably he's with the cult. But what's the greater significance, and why doesn't Jay go to another doctor?
- Is the cult logo (that begins and ends the film) online anywhere? I vaguely remember it having four lines, which would match the four killings, but I don't want to go too far down that road without seeing it again first.
- I have assumed that neither Gal nor Shel (Jay's wife) are in on this. I'm not 100% sure, though, particularly on the latter; Fiona's spending a lot of time with her, and her reaction to the cat seemed strangely muted. But she certainly doesn't seem on the inside as the cult is closing in on their house.
- As for Gal, he makes Jay go in the storage space for the librarian, which opens the puzzle more deeply. My gut is that this is a decision made for exposition/backstory purposes, so as to motivate Jay's more out-of-control aspects, but there's the small possibility that Gal's doing that because he knows what they'll find. I really don't prefer that - I like to think that Jay goes off list, but it doesn't really matter to the cultists in the larger narrative. He can try to restore order and justice, in his own chaotic matter, but as the chosen one his destiny is pre-ordained.
- I presume that it's the MP that's shot in the cult scene, but I'm not sure if there's textual evidence for this. I'd be curious to know if he knew it was coming. My feel is that the cultists we see there are perhaps an offshoot that's being decimated for the reconstruction, but I think it could be read either way.
- To be honest, my biggest question in the movie and biggest frustration with the movie (apart with certain camera/editing choices that weren't to my taste, albeit perhaps a natural offshoot of the improv-y nature of the filming, and problems picking up certain dialogue lines, which is simply an accent interpretation issue) is this: WHY DO JAY AND GAL NOT TURN THEIR FUCKING HEADLAMPS OUT WHEN THEY'RE HIDING IN THE TUNNEL FROM THE CULTISTS? This completely jarred with me and took me out of the film entirely. These are pros. Find a place to hide, snipe your enemy as they're coming. Interestingly, while this took me out of the movie, it was also the sequence that a couple people mentioned as the high point of the final act of the film. And technically it's a well done sequence, and if I can find it in me to accept that there's a reason (other than, you know, you need light to see your actors) for them to leave their lights on, I might come around on it.
Thoughts? Disagreements? Alternative interpretations?