Director John Dahl made an impressive splash a number of years ago with the release of "The Last Seduction". It made a star of Linda Fiorentino and showed us a side of Bill Pullman that was new to us. In the last few years, he has made a number of films, but none of these has captured the interest of moviegoers like "Seduction". "Joy Ride" and "Rounders" were both good, but when you sit them next to the modern day Noir "Seduction", they pale in comparison. Now, Dahl has returned to form with a little black comedy called "You Kill Me".
Frank Falenczyk (Ben Kingsley, "Gandhi", "Sexy Beast") is a hit man for the Polish Mob in Buffalo, New York. He is good at his job, maybe too good, because he is bored and has turned to drink. His boss Roman (Philip Baker Hall), also a relative, cares about Frank, so when Frank misses a hit on Edward O'Leary (Dennis Farina), the head of the Irish Mob in Buffalo, Roman sends Frank to San Francisco to dry up. Upon arrival, Frank meets Dave (Bill Pullman), a predatory estate agent and a member of Roman's payroll who has secured an apartment and a job for Frank. Frank will work part time at a local funeral home and begin to attend AA meetings. Frank meets Laurel (Tea Leoni), the daughter of a client and they start going out. But Frank's sponsor, Tom (Luke Wilson) isn't sure he should complicate his recovery with a woman. As Frank goes to meetings and tries to get his life back in order, O'Leary starts to wrest control of Buffalo from Roman.
A lot of people have noted the dichotomy of an actor who earned his reputation playing an icon of peace now making a career playing killers. I don't think it is a matter of the role Kingsley plays, it is a matter of his skill; he is such a great actor, he makes any role look easy. So what if he has spent the last few years playing killers? They are very memorable roles and Frank is no exception.
Frank is a sloppy drunk and in his line of work, you can't be sloppy. He stakes out the train station to wait for O'Leary to make an appearance, but he falls asleep. If he weren't related to Roman, that would probably be the end of the story, but Roman cares for him and Roman's son, Stef, is like a brother to Frank, so they try to get him some help. Off to San Francisco. This is the weakest point in the story. Why San Francisco? Why send someone across the country when you are trying to get him to sober up? Clearly, this was a way to get the story to this great city, but it seems a bit of a stretch. There are many, many places they could have sent Frank, but I get the feeling they wanted to set the film in San Francisco so San Francisco it is. And the film works the city into the story. There is an amusing ongoing bit about walking up and down hills and the real estate market in this popular city also plays a role in the story.
When Frank arrives in San Francisco, he shows up at the address he has and finds a nice apartment, dark, but nice. Then he gets a phone call instructing him to be at a church at a specific time. When he arrives, he finds an AA meeting and can't really handle it, so he leaves. Dave (Pullman) is waiting outside and explains the situation to him; he has to attend AA, he has to work or Roman will drop him like a dead weight.
Throughout the film, Kinglsey maintains a stoic presence, showing little if any emotion. But because he is a hit man, this fits perfectly for his character. There are brief glimpses of satisfaction, happiness, anger, determination throughout, but Frank isn't an effusive guy. It is a testament to Kingsley's skill that he is able to make these small glimpses of emotion stand out. When we spot them, his character becomes all the more human.
A couple of years ago, I saw two films starring the same actress and her performances in these films helped to completely change my view of her acting ability. With the one - two punch of either-you-love-it-or-you-hate-it "Moulin Rouge" and "The Others", I stopped referring to Nicole Kidman as the Ice Queen and grew to look forward to her new films. With "You Kill Me", Tea Leoni takes one step in the same direction. Leoni, who got her start in a quirky, funny, short-lived TV show, quickly became the next Big Thing. Her first starring role in a motion picture was "Deep Impact", the OTHER asteroid film released that year. Just a note, you really never want to be in the OTHER of any type of film, unless of course your film is better. Since then, she has made a string of films, some big budget, some independents, most of which are difficult to watch. Some of these were made, or directed by her husband, David Duchovny. Now, with "You Kill Me", Leoni, who also produces the film, plays Laurel, a salesperson for a local television station. When she meets Frank at the funeral home he works at, she is a little surprised and amused that this man, this older man would make a pass at her, but her amusement gets the better of her. Throughout their relationship, we get a sense of how 'real' they are. Both are mature enough to know that they need a relationship, passion will follow.
Throughout, Leoni portrays Laurel as a mature, confident woman. There are hints that Laurel has had some difficulty; her attitude towards her deceased father-in-law hints at other things. And as Laurel gets to know her new friend, she becomes intrigued by his choice of occupation. She wants to learn more about it, learn all the tricks and moves.
Luke Wilson is amusing as Tom. Tom introduces himself to Frank at an AA meeting and they form a friendship. Tom always seems to be there when Frank is about to do something and they talk a lot, so much so that Frank visits Tom at his work, taking tolls at the Golden Gate Bridge. When he becomes Frank's sponsor, he lends his new friend an ear and provides whatever advice he may need. Wilson is also pretty stoic, but his heavy eyes reveal that he has seen his fare share of the world, people recovering and more. He is ready to use that intelligence to help his friends.
Bill Pullman is great as the sleazy real estate agent who is in Roman's pocket and agrees to help him out by keeping an eye on Frank. They don't get along, but Frank realizes he has to do what the guy says. When Dave runs into trouble, he naturally turns to Frank for some help.
Philip Baker Hall and Dennis Farina play the opposing heads of two separate ethnic organized crime families battling for control of Buffalo, New York. Each is great, scary, dangerous and imposing, just as they should be.
Perhaps the biggest surprise about "Kill" is the black humor prevalent throughout.
It seems as though every interaction contains a little bit of humor; the first time Frank attends an AA meeting, he can't handle it, but who can and we laugh because we identify with it. The dates between Frank and Laurel are amusing, especially when Tom tags along. Dave is such a sleazebag that we expect him to provide some laughs, and Pullman manages to make his character funny. Even though there is a lot of humor, it doesn't seem unnatural because the filmmakers are finding the humor in everyday situations, albeit highly unusual everyday situations.
"You Kill Me" combines very good performances with interesting characters, excellent writing and the perfect style and level of direction creating a memorable and enjoyable piece of escapism for the summer.