Since director John Dahl’s early successes in neo-noir — Kill Me Again, Red Rock West and the brilliant The Last Seduction — it feels as if he disappeared off the radar, especially in the wake of the slew of Quentin Tarantino clones intent on pulping up the juice.
Dahl seemingly began to genre-hop in the vein of Steven Soderbergh. Unforgettable — with Ray Liotta as a cop trying to solve a crime using a memory-inducing drug and Seduction‘s femme fatale Linda Fiorentino as the doctor/researcher sidekick/love interest — used a silly sci-fi formula to twist the noir and came off more than a little flat. The gambling flick Rounders had all of the necessary grit and seedy backroom atmosphere but again lacked the truly dark focus to make audiences take the sucker bet.
For Joy Ride and The Great Raid, he left noir behind completely. Thanks in no small part to the furious, go-for-broke energy of Steve Zahn and Paul Walker — yes, Paul Walker — the road theiller Joy Ride nearly recaptured Dahl’s mojo.
Yet he backed off with The Great Raid, a World War II POW escape story full of good intentions (it was based on true events) and little else.
But with You Kill Me, Dahl announces a return to his home turf, and there is welcome relief in the homecoming. Frank Falenczyk (Sir Ben Kingsley), a Polish family hitman in Buffalo with a drinking problem, goes to San Francisco to detox after he sleeps through a pivotal assignment to kill a rival boss (Dennis Farina) that sends the business into a downward spiral. As Frank discovers in AA, there are two things he’s good at — killing and drinking. The problem for him is that the two don’t mix.
While in sunny California experiencing a cultural clash of darkly comic proportions, he finds himself in the company of Tom (Luke Wilson), gay tollbooth worker who becomes his AA sponsor, and the romantically depressed Laurel (Tea Leoni), who isn’t an alcoholic, although her relationship issues place her on par with Frank.
The premise is high on humor, but it is certainly twisted by the choices each character makes in the moment. Frank comes clean about his work with everyone right off the bat, going so far as to share his complete story during his first AA testimonial, which shocks many at the meeting but nets huge payoffs as Dahl milks the participant responses for an additional comedic beat or two.
Dahl and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (the team behind the teleplay for HBO’s original movie The Life and Death of Peter Sellers) understand the addiction program enough to realize that Frank’s bottoming out isn’t that far removed from anyone else in that setting, and, more importantly, no one would truly feel in any position to judge him.
Dahl’s command of tone aligns You Kill Me with his early neo-noir favorites, and he receives able assistance from Kingsley, Leoni and Wilson. Kingsley squeezes the same vein as his volcanic turn in Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast, yet he does so without the overwhelming expletive-laden eruptions of that killer Don. Kingsley ensures that Frank, even deep within his drinking binges, never makes an unwelcome spectacle of himself. And both Leoni and Wilson downplay the broad strokes of their characters, going small, allowing the audience to fill in the gaps provided in their back-stories.
Dahl feels more at home, too, in this working-class setting. The streets are shot through with the gritty details of small neighborhoods and the hard-won grabs for glory that his gangsters make. We’ve seen the end of The Sopranos and David Chase’s attempts to connect The Family with suburban life, but in Dahl-land The Family is still struggling and striving to come up from the bottom. And even in San Francisco, during Frank’s detoxification, he makes sure we’re aware of the fact that we’re still looking up from the depths.
The only knock on You Kill Me is that, once Frank finally returns from the West Coast to clean up the mess he created in Buffalo, the film stops just short of delivering a true kill shot. Frank has cleaned up his life and taught Laurel a thing or two about the seedy end of his business, but Dahl won’t let her get her hands dirty, thus withdrawing from the precipice.
If only he had gone for the kill like he did in The Last Seduction, then he might have captured the secret desires in our dark hearts. Grade: B (tt stern-enzi)