Thursday, August 23, 2007

Film Review #118: You Kill Me
Director: John Dahl
Cast: Ben Kingsley, Téa Leoni, Luke Wilson

As movie directors go, John Dahl is a cult classic kind of guy, even leaving aside his debut of three stunning noirs over five years beginning in 1989 with Kill Me Again, followed by Red Rock West and The Last Seduction. Dahl tried his hand at terror with Joy Ride and made a credible entry in the World War II revival with The Great Raid two years ago. Just as his 1998 Matt Damon-Edward Norton poker buddy tale, Rounders, found its post-theater fans by word of mouth along with the rise of televised poker championships, You Kill Me is destined for a following among those familiar with escaping the grip of demon rum via the 12 step method.

The script from writing team Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely has seasoned for a decade or so. Dahl prowls many a cliff but never pitches over the edge into the arch satire, easy slapstick, tragic melodrama or earnest soap to which movies about addiction are so susceptible. Instead, You Kill Me contents itself with an understated knowing about early recovery, wrapped in a decent gangster yarn. And really, what could be more appetizing for the desperados that all sobered-up drunks with a little time under their belts secretly know themselves at heart to be? One of the pleasures of watching this film in a dark movie theater includes the small pockets of rueful, appreciative laughter where Dahl has gotten it right. You Kill Me premiered in late April at Tribeca, opened in theaters in late June, and at its peak in late July graced 252 US screens. Now at lower Manhattan’s Angelika Theater three times daily for the tail end of this respectable if diffident run, You Kill Me should have enough critical mass for an early DVD release.

Take for example the first church basement Alcoholics Anonymous meeting of professional hit man Frank Falenczyk (Ben Kingsley), the visual equivalent of an old Plymouth’s slant-six engine wheezing and popping its way back to life after a few seasons at the end of the driveway. Frank slides resentfully into a folding chair in the back row – exiled to San Francisco, which is how he sees it, from wintry Buffalo – and there he slouches, studiously disinterested, armed folded, chin tucked in, his torso bent to one side so he’s even shorter. His eyes, less windows to his soul than periscopes, scan the room in slow motion. A woman at the front of the room speaks and Frank starts to listen. Without the slightest bit of mugging, instead bafflement, irritation, surprise, dismissal and disbelief cross his face and roll through his body – a sharp squint when he actually hears what she’s saying, a weary half chuckle at this fool, a soft snort at this scam, a bending of his head and a hitch in his seat he can’t quite contain. To Dahl’s credit the woman speaking has little to say that’s quotable or extreme, but Kingsley’s cement-faced, long-solitary killer has almost imperceptibly, against both his better judgment and intentions, softened.

As Frank’s sobering up goes on – he finds improbably that something’s spoiled his drinking, he gets a sponsor (Luke Wilson as we should get to see him more often) who holds impromptu discussions at the door of his Golden Gate Bridge toll-booth, he impulsively speaks at a meeting and explains that he kills people for a living, he has a slip and almost loses a girl, he makes a return trip to Buffalo where he seeks out a hometown AA meeting, and he more than survives a drink thrown in his face in a deserted lounge on the grayest of afternoons – this first encounter with mindfully sober people repeatedly proves itself a sound anchor.

All his life Frank has worked for his uncle, Roman Krzeminski (Philip Baker Hall), head of Buffalo’s Polish mob. A gruff, old-school papa with a Brill Cream pompadour, Roman later locks his son out of sight in the cellar and awaits his own slaughter in an armchair in his cramped, dark vestibule when he realizes his rival boss is coming through the front door. Frank’s steady vodka consumption converges with this challenge to his uncle’s lucrative control of city snowplowing by upstart Irish thugs and their new-comer Chinese partners. The winter Buffalo scenes were actually shot in Winnipeg, but Dahl captures the look and ambiance of western New York’s scrub trees, old working class neighborhoods, city streets and parking lots.

Early on, Frank botches killing the rival O’Leary (Dennis Farina), a sadistic sociopath of the sort Dahl has specialized in since Michael Madsen’s Vince Miller in Kill Me Again. Frank is so loaded he passes out in his car on the appointed chill and starless night. Hauled before his uncle in the snowplow garage, his protests, promises and pleas – all requiring an excruciating effort from one so hung over – fall on deaf ears. Never rising from this hot-seat – actually we’re witnessing what’s known as a family intervention – Frank finally subsides, leans forward and throws up on the drain grate conveniently under his feet.

So Frank is sent west to San Francisco. There, the family’s fixer, Dave (Bill Pullman, a Dahl regular), sets him up in an apartment as gray as Buffalo’s winter. A tiny window over the kitchen sink lets in a patch of California sun. Frank unpacks by opening a new quart of vodka. He intends to kick back on the gray couch and wait out his exile. Instead, Dave drops him off to that church basement, then hauls him to a job at a modest funeral chapel. Here he is good at making corpses presentable and lends a surprisingly stalwart presence to calling hours. And here Frank meets Laurel (Téa Leoni, who holds her own with Ben Kingsley in a delicious performance of great range, bite and nuance). To please her mother, she’s dropping off a pair of bowling shoes (stolen, way too big) for her despised step-father’s burial outfit. She tells Frank all this in the embalming room’s doorway. Frank’s first flirtation – you have to pay attention here, as she is, to appreciate how these soul-mates recognize mutual connivance – consists of assuring Laurel’s mother at calling hours, in front of Laurel, that the shoes “fit like a glove.”

The tart and wary Laurel, herself a survivor who navigates the cutthroat world of media advertising, is Dahl’s sweetest and most hopeful woman character yet, capable of both tenderness and the grit needed to follow Frank back to Buffalo when his cousin calls for rescue from O’Leary. She is miles from those mesmerizingly toxic femme fatales of Dahl’s early noirs – Fay, Suzanne and Bridget. Laurel’s presence is also part of how Dahl balances comic elements so that the film refrains from caricature and stops short of something we’d sum up as “madcap.” The script provided plenty of opportunities. You Kill Me opens, for example, with Frank incentivizing the chore of shoveling his front sidewalk by tossing his vodka bottle a few feet ahead of him into still-virgin snow drifts. He can’t turn down a drink from a family of imbibing mourners and winds up dancing. He coaches Laurel in assassination techniques by slicing a watermelon. Coerced by Dave into nudging a real estate deal along, he shows up in a stuffy businessman’s office in his shorts.

Entertaining as these scenes are, they’re also signs of a life wildly out of whack. A little to the left with Laurel and we’d tip into conventional happy-ending land, not the richer, harder-won, surprisingly vivid smile that opens Frank’s face when he says he now has something worth hanging onto to.

This review appears in today’s