You Kill Me

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Rebecca Sandulak/IFC Films
John Dahl/United States 2007

“I work. When I’m not working, I drink. I thought I kept these two activities pretty well separated, but it had to be brought to my attention that that wasn’t really the case.”

So admits Buffalo-based hitman Frank Falenczyk (Ben Kingsley) after many weeks of attendance at his AA support group – and only shortly after he has disclosed the fact that he kills people for a living. The absurdity of this particular scenario epitomizes the wry tone of director John Dahl’s black comedy You Kill Me, which consistently blends a droll examination of alcoholism with the irony already inherent in basing one’s livelihood on taking the lives of others.

When Frank falls into an alcohol-induced slumber and fails to fulfill his latest assignment – the assassination of Edward O’Leary (Dennis Farina), chief competitor to the local Polish mob’s snow-plowing business – his family sends him to sober up in San Francisco under the supervision of Dave (Bill Pullman), a real estate agent with his own agenda to fulfill. Dave sets Frank up with an apartment and a job prepping corpses in a funeral home, in addition to getting him situated with the local AA group.

Temporarily relieved of the usual tools of his trade, Frank instead shoots metaphorical daggers from his eyes at anyone who attempts even friendly conversation at his first few AA meetings. However, he soon realizes that getting his job back means dealing with the drinking habit – which isn’t so bad once romance starts to divert his energies away from the temptation of alcohol. With the support of the lovely – if somewhat peculiar – Laurel (Téa Leoni) and his new AA sponsor Tom (Luke Wilson), Frank finally feels ready to stop drinking.

That is, until he slips once – and then once again. Essentially, this is a film about the inevitably of making mistakes and the necessity of accepting them in order to move on. Who says spirituality and morality have to go hand in hand?

An acquired taste, black comedy already demands more patience than most other film genres, and You Kill Me is no exception to that rule. Despite the seeming promise of Frank’s profession, the plot depends more on the pensive inaction of internal struggle than the blowout action of gang warfare. This would have been a dangerous gamble with any other leading man in the role of Frank, but Kingsley commands the screen even when doing little more than staring intently at a mug of gin – but especially so when applying the finishing touches of makeup to the face of a dead man being prepared for a wake.

But strong performances abound here, at least San Fran-side – Leoni magnificently embodies the slightly neurotic, but lovable, Laurel, Wilson’s own serene persona lends an ideal air to Tom, and Pullman captures the manic tendencies of Dave with just the right amount of charm. Unfortunately, the gang back in Buffalo lacks the same magnetism, with its performers alternately coming across as too stiff or too forced. This two-sided pattern persists on the level of writing, as well – it almost seems as if writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely focused on developing the meat of their story without devoting much time to the peripheral frame. Too bad, with such sharp actors like Farina and Phillip Baker Hall populating the Buffalo side.

Nonetheless, You Kill Me should be a treat for anyone who appreciates the dry humor of black comedy – or an unusual spin on New Age philosophy. Just don’t expect to be wowed; the film encapsulates the restraint of its protagonist, erupting out of a relatively quiet progression only about as many times as Frank has to kill someone.

© 2007 Lydia Storie. All rights reserved.

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