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John Dahl's You Kill Me, with a script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, has a strange, true-to-life quality to it. There is a story, but most of the characters are incidental to it, as would undoubtedly be the case if you told a story from your life but littered it with most of the people whom you know and see every day. Fortunately, the story is strong enough to keep incoherence at bay. Mr Dahl's direction, likewise, is strong enough to keep his diverse and gifted cast on the same page.
Here's the story. Frank Falenczyk (Ben Kingsley) is a hit man for a small band of Polish hoodlums in Buffalo. Business is not great, and this means that Frank's services are more vital than ever. Unfortunately, he's got a major drinking problem. When Frank sleeps through a hit instead of offing the rival gangleader, Edward O'Leary (Dennis Farina), his boss, Roman Krzeminski (Philip Baker Hall), orders him to go to San Francisco and clean himself up. There, a connection of Roman's called Dave (Bill Pullman) finds him a flat and a part-time job at a funeral parlor. He also finds him an AA meeting to attend, and makes it clear that he'll be checking up on Frank. Roman's parting words echo thousands of miles away: "We can't have you working for us right now, and we can't have you working for anybody else." Frank may be recalcitrant, but he's not stupid.
While Frank fixes his life in San Francisco, O'Leary tightens the screws on Roman's operation. Roman's nephew, Steph (Marcus Thomas), wants to call in Frank, but Roman won't have it. Things have to get very bad indeed before Steph fiinally makes the call. Frank returns to Buffalo and avenges his "family," with some unexpected help.
That is the story, and it moves along briskly between scenes of Frank's new life in California, where one thing is established right away: Frank is a hardworking man with a drinking problem, not a sociopath. His hard-grained, working class self-respect kicks in as soon as he understands that he has no choice about following Roman's orders. When he pours a drink but sets the glass in the sink, you know that he's as determined to overcome his weakness as he would be to fulfill one of his contracts. (Nor is You Kill Me unrealistic about relapses.)
Aside from the job at the funeral parlor, Frank is a fish out of water, and therefrom springs the comedy. As a bottled-up killer, Frank finds his AA meetings profoundly challenging at first, but when he eventually musters the candor upon which twelve-step programs are based, the dramatic polarity flips rudely. In one beautifully polished joke, Frank sighs over making amends, pursuant to one of the steps. He mails gift certificates to the nearest relatives of recent victims whose killings were botched - effective in the end, but protracted, owing to Frank's inebriation at time. As he tells his new girlfriend, Laurel (Téa Leoni), he's not sorry about killing anybody but he's sorry that didn't kill as swiftly as he might have done.
Frank meets Laurel at the funeral parlor while her stepfather (unlamented by her) is being prepared for burial. The tact with which Mr Dahl nurtures an improbable romance in its burgeoning stages (with appropriate skittishness) is matched by the chemistry that Mr Kingsley and Ms Leoni develop. On paper, they make an unlikely couple, especially as Mr Kingsley is not looking his romantic best here. In the film, however, the relationship is utterly adult, with both characters proceeding by small steps and maintaining firm grips on their defenses. Ms Leoni, moreover, makes Laurel absolutely convincing when she accepts Frank's career with only the bat of an eyelash. Throughout the film, she knows how to light up Mr Kingsley's understatements with cool comic timing. Her performance is nothing less than a tour de force.
As is usual in AA, Frank has a sponsor, a gay toll collector called Tom (Luke Wilson). As such, Mr Wilson is obliged to deliver thoughtful and encouraging remarks about addiction and recovery. The writers manage to integrate his part with the movie's comic whole, but just barely. In the context of this story, Tom is dangerously decent. But Mr Wilson embodies him to perfection, and Mr Kingsley gifted enough to let Tom into Frank's calloused life.
Contract killing and alcoholism are not fun topics, and You Kill Me does not attempt to pretty them up. It does, however, know how to squeeze them for genuine romantic-comedy laughs. If this gritty, unusual comedy marches to a different drummer, it never misses a step. (June 2007)
Copyright (c) 2007 Pourover Press