They’re Bad People – They Should Suffer”: Post-British Crime Films and the Ethics of Retributive Violence



Post-British Cinema, Crime Films, Ethics of Retribution, Ethical Turn, Film as Thought Experiment /Thomas Elsaesser


In my article, I will focus on Nick Love’s Outlaw (2007) and Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (2011) – two British films which I propose to call, using Michael Gardiner’s words, “post-British” crime films. According to Gardiner, post-Britishness describes a cultural phase in which the cultural and political promises of the British union are being upended. Post-British forms of culture, then, prefigure the ethico-political crisis of the British union. I argue that this post-British sensibility bears strong resemblance to Thomas Elsaesser’s notion of Europe’s “post-heroic” cinema as an ethical and political thought experiment. In my article, I want to focus on a comparative analysis of Outlaw and Kill List as such thought experiments.

The two films focus on characters who have lost faith in Britain’s institutions such as democratic politics or the justice system. The contract killers in Kill List and the frustrated ex-soldier in Outlaw consider the very idea of Britain itself to be at stake. Outlaw paints the picture of a fundamentally corrupt justice system which lets the streets roam with acquitted offenders, while Kill List’s narrative ultimately reveals central institutions of power to be run by a Pagan cult, and the two contract killers’ final job turns out to be a ritual of sacrifice. In both films, characters are convinced that the only way to reach any kind of ethical standards within a disintegrating national community is to resort to vigilantism and retributive violence. This kind of retributive violence not only points to a crisis of ethics, but also to what René Girard has called a “sacrificial crisis” which is marked by the blurred difference between impure and purifying violence, and which ultimately affects the cultural order of a community.

In that respect, Nick Love and Ben Wheatley’s post-British crime films become readable as though experiments in Elsaesser’s sense since they render their protagonists within an ethical experiment of abjection: the vigilante outlaws and contract killers themselves assume the status of abjects through what they do and throughout the films’ narratives end up in situations that “are situated at the bottom of what is human, as if to test […] what survives when dignity evaporates and the ‘ethical self’ disintegrates”. Simultaneously, their retributive violence is directed against child molesters and other offenders who likewise inhabit abject positions. It is in these key scenes of violent “abject reciprocity” that the two films unfold their full (if not unproblematic) potentials as ‘films as ethics’, for here their thought experiments transcend the confines of popular genre conventions and drastically implicate the audience as abject spectators of a violence intended to be purifying.

I will use Elsaesser’s concept of film as ethical thought experiment as a framework to demonstrate how these films negotiate the post-British situation as an ethico-political vacuum which finds expression in their narratives as well as in their form: both films ethically implicate the spectator through their suggestive use of long takes and their deliberate deconstruction of genre conventions. In these post-British scenarios, plot and form comment on each other. Notions such as national cinema or genre have become as problematic and as compromised as democratic politics and the idea of justice. Abjection thus becomes “an ethical foil and a political vanishing point” in these cinematic thought experiments.




How to Cite

Schmitt, M. (2019). They’re Bad People – They Should Suffer”: Post-British Crime Films and the Ethics of Retributive Violence. Cinema: Journal of Philosophy and the Moving Image, (11), 152–168. Retrieved from