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From the screenwriters of the Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe comes the R-rated black comedy You Kill Me. It’s an odd pairing, but at least you can say these guys have range. To helm this film, about a hitman whose drinking problem has caused sloppiness and perhaps the demise of his Polish gang in Buffalo, we have John Dahl. I am a huge fan of Rounders, so I was hoping for some of the same here, with a dramatic arc that worked and made sense intelligently, but also bringing the laughs that the trailer promised. Thankfully this film doesn’t disappoint. Yes, there are some moments of disbelief, but the dry, straight-laced delivery of everything else makes up for the leaps in logic that would otherwise eat at me for the duration. While not laugh-out-loud funny, Dahl has put together a nice slow burning comedy that allows its characters to live and breathe realistically and evolve in a somewhat believable manner.

Our aforementioned hitman is played brilliantly by Ben Kingsley. I remember when I used to look at him as just Gandhi, but after the diverse catalog of films he has done recently, I’ve realized that he isn’t afraid to branch out into darker fare. His role here has a lot going for it in comedic terms—he is an alcoholic, a loner that kills for money, and a resident of the arctic pole of Buffalo. Put all that together and you can think of a few funny situations for him to get into. To the filmmakers’ credit, though, we never really get any of that except for the opening “job.” When Kingsley’s Frank sleeps through the one big job he is relied on to do, everything falls apart. What happens next is his journey to sobriety and friendship/love to pull him through to an understanding about what he really is living for. What worked for a film like The Matador couldn’t be as effective here. Frank isn’t having a nervous breakdown or losing his cool, he is off the job seeking help so that he can go back on the payroll. We don’t need him to drunkenly wave a loaded gun at people, the comedy instead comes from his fish-out-of-water situation, being a cold-hearted killer trying to warm up to recovering alcoholics and a community he is not used to being sober around.

Kingsley definitely plays the role to perfection, never faltering from his matter-of-fact tone or takes no crap attitude. Everything out of his mouth is carefully orchestrated and he is not one to waste his own or others’ time. This fact makes some scenes hilarious because of the reactions from those he is speaking to. When he speaks from the heart and seriously, while sprinkling in his own experiences murdering people, during AA meetings, the utter silence and occasional Amen from the audience is gold. Besides his unfaltering demeanor and his sardonic sarcasm, it is when he plays off of love interest Téa Leoni when some of the best laughs occur. These two have a wonderful rapport and when they go at each other rapid fire, with one quip/comeback after another, you’d think it was all ad-libbed—the timing is that good. Leoni has been surprising me lately with her career. I don’t know why I used to think she was annoying, but recently having seen films like House of D and her early work in Flirting With Disaster, I realize that she is good at both the dramatic and the comedic.

The who’s who of supporting players also does a nice job anchoring the story. Luke Wilson seems to really just be playing himself, but the laidback friend is what is needed for the role. Philip Baker Hall and Dennis Farina show how it’s done as two rival mob bosses in Buffalo, (yes, I said mob bosses in Buffalo, I’m constantly scared for my life when walking around downtown at night). Their storyline is handled well and counteracts the subtle humor going on at rehab in San Francisco with some tense moments trying to keep the Polish afloat at the hands of the ever increasing Irish crew. Mention is also needed for Bill Pullman who has been making some good choices of late in small supporting roles. His self-absorbed real estate agent is entertaining because his ego won’t let him be intimidated by the killer he is conversing with.

The laughs may not come over and over again, but when they do it’s smartly and appropriately. The fact that everyone in San Fran who hears Kingsley is a hitman just accept it like someone saying they washed their clothes that morning is a bit rough to get by, but really it doesn’t matter in terms of plot progression. The writers also try to distill the problem with Frank saying how it’s Alcoholics “Anonymous,” which brings a smile to your face for nothing more than the corniness of the line. I also don’t know how perfect placing the movie in Buffalo was. It seems the writers needed a cold, drinking town up north and our wonderful home of Buffalo was the first to come to their heads. When was the last time you heard about the Irish and Polish mob going to war while the Greeks stood back to see who came out on top? Yeah, that’s right, never. I did like the touch of hometown words by naming an Irish bar Scajaqueda. Just proves again these guys had no clue what they were doing with location. Overall, though, the film works despite any of its shortcomings.

You Kill Me 7/10

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photography:
[1] Frank (Sir Ben Kingsley) and Laurel (Tea Leoni) in a scene from YOU KILL ME directed by John Dahl. An IFC Films release. Photo Credit: Photographer Terry Wowchuck
[2] Frank (Sir Ben Kingsley) and Dave (Bill Pullman) in a scene from YOU KILL ME directed by John Dahl. An IFC Films release. Photo Credit: Photographer Terry Wowchuck

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