Generally speaking, Ben Kingsley comes under the heading of being an actor I know I’m supposed to like, who ends up instead being an actor I admire without really enjoying. In fact, I sometimes like him better in crap like Thunderbirds (2004) and Bloodrayne (2005) because they suggest a working actor who takes himself much less seriously than does his work in pretentious, pseudo-profound dramaturgy like The House of Sand and Fog (2003). (In all honesty, I’d far rather sit through both Bloodrayne and Thunderbirds on a double-bill than slog through The House of Sand and Fog solo.) In John Dahl’s You Kill Me, however, I both admired and liked Sir Ben as the alcoholic hit-man, Frank Falenczyk. For that matter, I admired and liked nearly everything about the film.
You Kill Me is an unassuming little film with a screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who, incredibly, were responsible for The Chronicles of Narnia). It’s the kind of movie that’s an obvious labor of love for those who made it (Kingsley and co-star Tea Leoni are among the film’s producers)—and it’s the kind of movie that will have a far longer shelf life than most of the largely disposable big summer blockbusters dwarfing it at the box office. The film works on a simple, deliberately outrageous concept. Frank is the hit man for a Polish mob family in Buffalo. When his drinking causes him to pass out in his car rather than off rival Irish mobster Edward O’Leary (Dennis Farina, TV’s Law and Order), his boss (and uncle) Roman Krzeminski (Philip Baker Hall, Magnolia) parcels him off to San Francisco with instructions to get into AA and pull himself together—or else.
The humor is grounded in the acceptability, even desirability, of the idea of a paid killer going through recovery so he can return to being a competent, reliable paid killer. For the most part, the film doesn’t tussle with the idea directly. It takes the path of just accepting it, but suggests a kind of pragmatic justification by virtue of the numerous killings caused by the ripple effect of Frank having not succeeded in his assignment to kill O’Leary. Moreover, we live in a society that has long expressed a fascination—bordering on idolatry—with gangland figures and their own “morality.” Really, how much of a stretch is this?
What makes the film work—apart from the performances of Kingsley, the invariably underrated Tea Leoni (anyone who can hold her own onscreen with both Woody Allen and Ben Kingsley should be revered), and, somewhat surprisingly, Luke Wilson—is the dry approach to it all. In both tone and appearance, Dahl has made the film in a moody neo-noir style. It’s all done very seriously and the violence can be fairly brutal—cold-blooded without being unnecessarily graphic. No one tips his or her hand that this is funny, which, of course, is what makes it funny.
The film takes the notion of compulsive killers using AA in an attempt to overcome their addiction to murder—see Don Mancini’s Seed of Chucky (2004) and Bruce A. Evans’ Mr. Brooks (2007)—in a new direction that might be viewed as a logical extension, since here the problem is that drinking is interfering with the main character’s ability to kill. The humor arises not from poking fun at AA itself—though Frank’s early contempt for the group and its rituals is amusingly evident in Kingsley’s face—but from taking the idea of a member’s anonymity to an extreme level. Having testified to his problem—including the nature of the job it’s made him incapable of performing—Frank is assured by his sponsor, Tom (Wilson), that his talk went better than he might expect. Frank, on the other hand, just assumes that it would be accepted because “it’s anonymous, isn’t it?” “I’m not sure that’s what they had in mind when they founded the group, but you never know,” reasons Tom.
The interplay of Kingsley and Wilson is very sharp from the beginning when Tom admits that AA is also “a good place to meet guys,” prompting Frank to tell him that he’s not gay. Tom eyes the decidedly non-matinee-idol looks of Frank and confesses, “I’ll get over it.” Even better, though, is the chemistry between Kingsley and Leoni. His matter-of-factness matches her sharp tongue at every turn. Plus, Leoni has the facility to make her falling for a guy more than 20 years her senior completely believable (she did the same with an actor 30 years her senior, Woody Allen, in Hollywood Ending (2002)). All of this conspires to make You Kill Me one of those rarest of commodities these days—an intelligent comedy. And I wouldn’t wait too long to catch this one. It will quickly be pushed out to make room for another summer blockbuster. Rated R for language and some violence.